Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Comau team spotlights top technologies showcased at Automate; shares company vision

May 8, 2024
By Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Sponsored by Comau

Comau’s team members at the 2024 Automate Show shared the company’s highlights for the show, its innovations in robotics and automation and the company’s overall vision.

Here is what they had to share:

Manufacturing AUTOMATION: What are the highlights from Comau at the 2024 Automate Show?

Nicole Clement, Head of Advanced Automation Solutions at Comau: We launched two new solutions here. One is a product product range. It’s our new small robot platform – the S-Robot Family. It is basically a line dedicated to non-automotive material handling and continuous processes like arc welding applications. They are very light robots that have very small footprint. They are also much more energy efficient than before. They have a very user-friendly design with what we call a ‘hollow wrist’ where you can hide all the cabling to have a lesser footprint where you are installing the robots. They come with an 18 and a 13-kilogram payload.


Comau is traditionally very savvy and was focused on the automotive sector. But, with the current trend in the non-automotive industry to automate, we are also adapting our portfolio into that direction. This is one of the new solutions.

The other one is the new addition to our MI.RA family. It is our vision systems and solutions portfolio –  the MI.RA/OnePicker cell. It is a solution where you can pick and grasp objects based on our mirror vision system that we have incorporated into the cell. With this, we want to enter into sectors where intelligent picking is key, specifically in the logistics and warehouse automation space. Even in the automotive sector, we can use this intelligent picking solution.

Finally, launched this year at automate, we have wearable exoskeletons MATE-XT and MATE-XB that complement our product portfolio, specifically for the material handling space. We launched the second exoskeleton last year at Automatica. However, it’s the first time that we are showcasing our product for the lower part of the body that is focused on reducing back pain and also helping workers bend much better and much more economically when lifting things. It is being showcased in the United States for the first time. It complements the fully automated lines with a sort of semi-automation for the workers.

We also have as a demonstration of our long-standing partnership with Rockwell, which is a big player in the United States. We have a cell here demonstrating our capabilities with Rockwell. They have integrated a variety of our robot arms into their automation solutions. They are Comau’s robot arms working together with Rockwell’s drives and PLCs. The benefit is that you don’t have to re-program through our controller and into our programming language. You can directly program to sell you through the PLC of Rockwell and also with their teach pendant. So if companies already have automation equipment from Rockwell, they can simply integrate our robot arms for picking, placing, handling and a variety of applications. It is focused on making it easier to use for the end customer and leveraging equipment that they already have, making it more economically affordable as well.

We are also featuring our partnership with Intrinsic. They are a low-code robot programming and automation programming company that we are partnering with. We see specifically in material handling and in logistics, there’s a lot of changeover of product. Every time you change a product you would normally have to reprogram the cell for palletizing, depalletizing and picking. With the Intrinsic partnership, we are bringing a software partner where you can also use software. You don’t have to reprogram anymore when you have a changeover of product. It helps to deal with the variability of the process. We are also developing new applications with them. We have been working with them for five years now in various sectors. We are proud to feature them here at the Automate Show for the first time. We launched our partnership at Automatica last year.

MA: What are the primary drivers behind Comau’s strategy and focus on advancing robotics and automation solutions?

Nicole: Comau has been in automation for more than 50 years. We are very well established in the automotive sector. We know how to automate very complex processes and projects and we want to leverage that know-how. Everywhere there is a shortage of workers, a shortage of robot programmers, and a shortage of people who can handle automation. They use our know-how and the knowledge that we have for more than 50 years in very complex projects and high-risk applications.

We want to roll that know-how out across other industries such as food, pharma, logistics, and also renewable energy. With our automotive footprint, we are also naturally now embarking into the battery business for example. The whole topic of giga factory automation is naturally coming to us because our customers require that. With that, we are not only looking into automotive, we also are currently working with a big shipbuilder, for example. They are not using batteries but they are using hydrogen to automate their fleets. So we are looking into how we can automate the manufacturing of fuel cells, for example.

That’s our strategy to leverage our market expansion, leverage what we have and where we come from in new industry sectors and go step-by-step creating value for new customers. We want to grow with new customers and I think Automate here gives us a perfect platform, to do so. I walked the show floor and realized you don’t see so many solutions for automotive at the moment.  You see a lot in the material handling, intelligent picking and AI-driven solutions which are still in the TRL level. They are not ready for industrialization but are progressing super fast.  It’s a race and we want to be part of that and also capitalize on partnerships. We are thinking of maybe at some point adding in organically some capabilities that we don’t necessarily have.

For example, we are not very strong in mobile robotics. However, we are integrating mobile robots in automotive. We want to broaden our portfolio there and we have the integration knowledge. We might want to add the technology inorganically at some point because we also see that the demand for mobile robots is going through the roof. The food sector is also a market there for us to explore and we already have made a lot of progress in the recent six to eight months in that space.

A robot is something that people think you can deploy very quickly. When you realize how much work is behind the programming and what it takes to really make the robot do what it has to be doing, it’s not that simple. So, helping with that is also our mission.

We now try everything from a product development perspective to be sustainable and energy-efficient. For example, when you when you weld, instead of using a lot of water and water cooling, you try to use a different methodology. So, being as energy efficient and sustainable in all the processes of automation as possible is of course also an innovation driver for us.

MA: What specific challenges does Comau aim to address with its new S-Family of small, high-speed robots?

Nicole: The S-Family is a small robot platform. We have, for example, one variant, which is our SE robot specifically certified for food and pharma. It is really for material handling, logistics, picking and placing depalletizing and palletizing.  We see that most of our clients don’t want to have a very large footprint. They don’t have large footprints for robotics anymore. So the new S-Family is very compact and fits into smaller spaces. It is built for continuous processes like arc welding. So, we see even in the automotive sector, in some of the Tier 1 customers there is a lot of demand for arc welding.  Arc welding is also done in shipbuilding, where this robot is perfect because it’s small and handy, very fast, but at the same time very accurate. So these are sort of the spaces where we want to grow in this robot portfolio.

MA: Can you provide more details about the software-driven approach to automation that Comau is advocating for, including the role of user-friendly automation software?

Nicole: As I already mentioned, Intrinsic is helping to shorten the amount of time that you need to program a robot. Intrinsic has a perception-based approach, sensing and vision-based approach. The software helps with machine learning. Every time you change the process, you don’t need to invest into new fixtures, for example. So, you will also have a reduction in hardware. The software takes over some of the tasks that the hardware currently has, by being able to position the robot in a way that you don’t need to fix your objects anymore. It saves money. It saves time. It also makes it easier to use automation.

In the end, it should all be very accessible. Another advantage of Intrinsic is their platform approach is called the iTunes of robotics. They are making all the applications that you can address with their software very accessible. We can develop our applications that we can host on their platform, and then make it accessible to others. So, the path is to open source open and open approach to make sure that we can democratize automation as fast as possible.

On the other hand, with Rockwell, you usually enter an automation environment where you already have other automation equipment from Rockwell. It helps to simply add a robot. For a machine builder, for example, if Rockwell has already finished building the machine but they want to add a robot arm, they want to make it easier so that you can program through the PLC. You don’t need to learn new programming languages. To have that approach, you make it easier either through letting them do what they already know in terms of programming a Rockwell PLC is the same thing to program a robot from Comau, or opening up a whole world of new applications with software. It’s a different type of making it easier. That’s our approach to help automation adaption.

MA: Let’s discuss Comau’s MI.RA vision system family. What advantages does it offer in terms of automated piece-picking, particularly in unstructured environments like warehouses?

Alessandro Piscioneri, AAS Product & Solution Management at Comau: MI.RA is our visual system. We have a few products that are part of the family. Here in particular, we are showing the OnePicker, that is the latest one that is useful for solving a problem in logistics like picking objects that are not well known, or we don’t have any kind of model available. And while we still need to be able to pick and maybe sort it or transfer to the conveyor.  There is another solution called Picker, that solves the problem of picking – picking objects from a box or bin that are all the same type. The difference is that in this case, you know what you’re picking, you have a high level of reliability, and you know where to pick the object.

To complete the family we have two other solutions. One is called the MI.RA/Depalletizer. It is another visual system used to solve the problem of depalletizing meat SKUs. So, we have a pallet full of boxes of random dimension, and we need to be able to robotically without issues. This visual system tells the robot which box is the safest to pick and handle.

Lastly, we have a fourth version called MI.RA/3D. This solution is done easily using a 2D camera able to recognize the position in the space in three dimensions of an object with a well-known character. We use software in our development, matching the dimension of the part and the shape of the object and understanding the position of the final object in the space and then guiding the robot to pick the part.

MA: The company is also working on wearable exoskeletons. Can you discuss the functionality and benefits of MATE-XT and MATE-XB, in supporting workers during various tasks?

Alessandro: MATE is a combination of three different products MATE-XT, MATE-XT 4.0 and MATE-XB. MATE-XT is an exoskeleton for the upper limb – completely passive. There is no motor inside. But there is a spring mechanism that allows the operator to relieve and to decrease muscle stress. It helps the operator in operations where they need to stay for a prolonged time with a raised arm. It can also be used for agricultural or other types of industries. For example, we sold some of them to people who shoot videos because they need to stay for longer durations with raised hands. The exoskeleton helps to keep the arm steady without feeling uncomfortable. There is a version called MATE-XT 4.0 that collects data that the customer potentially can review and see how much the effort has been reduced. And then we have a version called MATE-XB that is for the lower limb that helps decrease the muscle pain in the back. It is useful for applications where you need to pick up a box. Using this passive device can decrease the pain of the muscle in the upward movement.

MA: How does Comau envision its advanced automation solutions contributing to the adoption and deployment of renewable energy, such as hydrogen fuel cells and electrolyzers?

Nicole: We are working on standardizing the manufacturing automation of fuel cells. We are currently working with a company that has tasked us to automate their fuel cells. We are currently in first deployment and are automating their manufacturing by having a robotized solution, stacking their fuel cells and then basically making them ready to work in a real environment. We are also providing leak testing. We are working with some suppliers where we are integrating the entire solution and our aim is to repeat that solution for other hydrogen providers. We are also working with others in that sector.

In the electrolyzers space, we see a lot of use also in the shipbuilding industry – basically creating the energy and storing energy. We also have a few projects in the electrolyzer space mostly in Asia. Fuel cell is closer to us at the moment because of the automotive heritage but the process is very similar for automating a fuel cell manufacturing and electrolyzer. It is just a different dimension. Electrolyzers are much bigger, and fuel cells are much smaller. Different kinds of precision and accuracy are needed when it comes to the robotized solution. Overall it’s a similar process to automate the respective materials and cells.

We also have a product called HyperFlex, which is used to automate the installation of solar panels in the field. It’s a big robot that you can use outdoors. It’s built to work on a very rough surface because it’s out in the field where you have solar panels installed where you don’t have a perfectly flat surface where normally a robot or even a mobile robot can work. This one can and is built for doing exactly that.

The industry of renewable energy is one of our very strategic verticals, moving forward and applying our robotized solutions.  Solutions that can work in unstructured environments are definitely part of the future strategy to grow in that sector.

MA: What specific industries or applications does Comau envision benefiting the most from its advanced automation solutions?

Nicole: From a traditional manufacturing perspective, continuous processes, such as arc welding, additive manufacturing, also gluing, and dispensing, all these continuous processes that need a lot of precision and accuracy is one area of focus. This is something that we have a lot of experience from the automotive industry to really understand how to be very precise and accurate in the way you use robots. This is one area that we think we can really be a leader from a technology perspective as well and from all the heritage that we have.

The other one is really intelligent picking and palletizing, depalletizing. Palletizing in the food sector specifically, because we have a lot of companies in Italy specifically but also in the United States food. At one of Rockwell Automation’s shows we showcased a palletizing solution with a dairy company. We have a food-certified robot that can work in that space, we see the palletizing depalletizing application where we can work naturally.

Also with MI.RA portfolio, the whole picking and placing objects in the warehouse and logistics space together even with end-of-line logistics, packaging, maybe also work in the batch packaging sector. So, bringing it all together – that’s kind of where we see our solution portfolio will be applied to the most.

MA: Finally, how does Comau’s product and technology planning align as solutions for existing and ongoing challenges in the manufacturing industry?

Nicole: Everybody wants to go with a smaller footprint. So we tried to be as condensed and compact as possible in our product portfolio. It’s the opposite of where we came from. We are introducing new business models in terms of pay-per-use or rental models, as the industry also has challenges in applying big CapEx.  It wants a quick return on investment without a high upfront CapEx – instead, it is looking for an optimized TCO.

Sustainability throughout is another requirement that we see from our customers. The new robot has a surface where you can use it very easily in areas that are dirty or have a lot of water around. You don’t need to clean all the time. It works in harsh conditions. So you need less maintenance.

The other solution that is really attached to all of our robots and automation solutions is our Ingrid digital platform. It is a digital line monitoring software and also an asset monitoring software to help our customers lower the cost of maintenance. It is a predictive maintenance model. When you deploy big automation lines, you usually have faults in the beginning. The software helps you see these faults much faster. You understand exactly where they are and you can fix them much quicker, which also helps reduce the commissioning times and costs for the customer. That’s how we want to apply today and in the future.

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