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Code-free robot teaching device wins $30m of backing

17 June, 2020

A German start-up has developed a hand-held device for code-free programming of industrial robots, which has attracted $30m of second-round funding from backers including Microsoft’s M12 funding arm. Dresden-based Wandelbots claims that its TracePen device costs a fraction of traditional programming techniques and is up to 70 times faster. “Even a layman can teach a robot a task within minutes,” it adds.

The company, founded in 2017, has already conducted pilot trials of its technology at manufacturers including Volkswagen, BMW and Infineon. It attracted $6.8m of initial funding in 2018, and the extra $30m will help it to accelerate the marketing of its technology and to expand globally.

Wandelbots believes that its technology will overcome barriers to have so far prevented SMEs (small and mid-sized enterprises), in particular, from adopting robotics more widely. These include the high costs, inflexibility and complexity of industrial robots, as well as the need for experts to program them.

According to Wandelbots, other limiting factors include:

• the waiting time for specialist robotics systems integrators – typically four months, according to the company;

• the fact that each robot manufacturer uses their own proprietary programming language and technology stacks, that can cannot be re-used for other robots; and

• the fact that almost 75% of the lifetime costs of a robot are software-related, and that it can be extremely costly to change a robot’s duties and difficult to predict ROIs.

Users need no technical expertise to program an industrial robot using Wandelbots' hand-held TracePen device

According to Wandelbots, separate projects, even within the same company, have to be developed individually by systems integrators, which is costly and results in delays. It claims that its code-free technology, which uses human demonstrations to teach robots their tasks, overcomes most of the barriers perceived by SMEs. No technical skills are needed, and programs can bet transferred easily from one robot to another. 

The platform-independent technology consists of hardware and software that generates automation scripts automatically. If required, the robots can be reprogrammed “within minutes”, according to the company. Programming can even take place remotely, which could be an added attraction in the post-Covid era.

At the heart of the system is the handheld TracePen device which combines optical and electromagnetic tracking technologies with sub-millimetre precision. It communicates wirelessly with software running on a PC, avoiding the need for any wiring. Haptic feedback built into the pen tells the user what they are doing.

Initially the pen is placed on the robot arm and a calibration process is started. A tip dedicated to the type of application – for example, painting, polishing, welding, deburring, pick-and-place, inspection, gluing or gripping – is then attached to the pen, and the user moves the pen through the desired path. On-board sensors detect the path and AI-based software determines the code needed to follow the optimum path “within seconds”. The control scripts can also be edited and simulated offline.

Robots from different manufacturers, with differing numbers of axes, can be programmed in an identical way. Initially, Wandelbots is supporting robots from ABB, Universal Robots and Denso. It is planning to add Fanuc, Kuka, Yaskawa and Staubli machines. Support for 2D machine vision systems is also in the pipeline.

Wandelbots will be offering a subscription-based payment model, avoiding the need for large one-off payments and lock-in schemes.

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