The robotics gold rush is in system-agnostic add-ons

Much like the PC and smartphone revolutions, a good many spoils of the automation age will go to companies who are giving robots their specialization.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

It's a good time to be making automation add-ons.

Plus One Robotics, which makes a 3D vision system that allows robots to identify pick points on items of different shapes and sizes, has just come out of stealth mode to announce its first commercial offering.

The firm is among a number of entrants in an increasingly competitive pool of startups hoping to be the eyes and ears of a new army of task-agnostic, highly customizable industrial robots from companies like ABB, Fanuc, and Universal Robots.

Welcome to the rise of the third-party supplier for industrial robotics. This is a story with some precedent.

Without question, the most transformative developments in automation over the past decade have not occurred in self-driving cars, sleek robotic exoskeletons, or the endless parade of service robots trotted out yearly at CES.

Also: The stunningly obvious case against all these robot companions

For sheer scale of adoption and impact on the economy, the biggest change in the sector is that robots can now safely work alongside humans on a line.

Sounds mundane, but that engineering feat is at the heart of the logistics revolution in ecommerce. It's the reason your days of waiting more than a few hours for a package to arrive are coming to an end, the reason the speed of global commerce is accelerating exponentially.

The major robotics players (the aforementioned ABB, Universal Robots, and others) are responsible for those breakthroughs. But much like the PC and smartphone revolutions, the big robotics firms are focused on building hardware. The SDK die in industrial automation was cast long ago when many of the big players decided to build on open-source architecture.

Now it's third-party suppliers who are giving robots much of their specialization, and that's where the gold rush is currently underway.

Plus One is one of those new entrants. It makes a 3D vision and controls system that tells robots the best place to grasp new items. It's not the first company to do that, and it won't be the last.

"At up to 1500 picks per hour, the software generates pick points faster than any other 3D vision software, allowing robots to meet or exceed human picking rates," said Plus One Robotics chief executive Erik Nieves.

Even the language used in marketing materials echoes fondly remembered claims of competing enterprise software developers.

Expect competition in the third-party automation space to heat up a lot in the coming years -- and expect lots more announcements like Plus One's. Automation systems and software development is a very interesting place to be right now.

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