Canada’s Robot Innovators

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by Kip Hanson

In a world where robots are working closer than ever to humans, these Canadian companies are leading the way

Canadian manufacturers learned a lot of lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the most valuable one has been the need for better automation. Shops that relied entirely on humans to keep products moving and machinery running over the past year have been the hardest hit. For those who were highly automated, it’s largely been better than expected. 

That’s not to say that machine operators, programmers, and set-up people are becoming obsolete in a post-COVID manufacturing world. Far from it. Yet the fact remains that without a robust automation strategy, manufacturers are at the mercy of the next pandemic or a similar global calamity. Even without such disruptions, the need for robotics is clear. Those able to make even a small leap into automation will soon find their shops more flexible, profitable, and ultimately hire more people to handle the company’s growth. 


A helping hand
Of course, not all industrial robotics are destined to load slugs and castings into CNC lathes or pull completed parts out of a nest at the tail end of the laser cutter. In fact, robots that can operate in close proximity to humans represent a growing market sector, and a number of companies across Canada are developing advanced robotics for a host of these sorts of applications. 

One of these is Kinova Inc., a robotics company in Boisbriand, Que., that got its start by developing assistive arms for people with upper body limitations. Marketing coordinator Marc-André Brault explains that Kinova is still quite active in the medical industry, but has also become popular with researchers and educators, as well as various industrial applications that require a lightweight robotic arm that is both inherently safe and adaptable to a wide range of applications. 

“Our original design was for a robot that can be mounted on an electric-powered wheelchair, giving people the ability to perform daily tasks like opening doors and putting food in the microwave,” Brault says. “After a few years, we found that many of our clients were using them for other purposes. Some of these were university professors looking for reasonably-priced robots that are both safe enough and intuitive enough for student use.”


An OTTO autonomous robot carries finished products to the loading dock at Ontario’s Sunview Patio Doors. Clearpath RoboticsRobot AI
The one feature of this growth was an increase in customization requests from researchers and industrial firms who wanted to put the robot to novel uses. These include such tasks as explosive ordinance disposal or nuclear material handling. This eventually led to Kinova’s development of the Gen3, a modular robot equipped with infinite rotation at all joints, optional 2D and 3D vision, torque-sensing smart actuators, and an open application programming interface (API).

Martin Leroux, client application designer at Kinova, notes the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in the robotics industry. “It’s been a buzzword for many years, but we’re beginning to see AI used to accomplish a myriad of tasks,” he says. “This is the idea behind the new industrial robot that we expect to announce later this year. It will have a controller, or ‘brain’ that will be AI-ready for customers who wish to use it in that way, which is something you don’t see very often in the marketplace. Either way, it offers simplified operation with the power and speed of an industrial robot, and like all of our robots, will be intuitive and accessible for people without formal training in robotics.”


Here, the Kinova Gen3 is performing a screw picking, vision-based pick and place application. Kinova Inc.Boldly going
Another well-known Canadian robot manufacturer is Clearpath Robotics Inc. in Waterloo, Ont. It’s the company behind the Moose, Warthog, and Jackal models of unmanned ground vehicles (UGV), some of which can be seen sporting Kinova robotic arms. The industrial applications for these smart vehicles are almost too numerous to count, but include remote inspection of hazardous environments, autonomous tending of mines and crops, search and rescue operations, surveying and terrain mapping, and even such esoteric jobs as “vibration damping of lightweight bridge structures.”   

For more industrial uses, there’s the autonomous mobile robot (AMR) from OTTO Motors, a Kitchener, Ont.-based division of Clearpath. Vice president of product Jay Judkowitz explains that three versions are available—the OTTO 100, OTTO 750, and OTTO 1500—with payload capacities ranging from 150 to 1500 kg (330 to 3300 lb), the larger two able to carry a 400 kg (880 lb) attachment. Unlike the now decades-old automated guided vehicle (AGV) that followed tapes or wires on the factory floor, OTTO uses 3D cameras, inertial sensors, and laser scanners to safely navigate from one point to another. 

“The OTTO carries materials from one point to another in a factory, warehouse, or distribution centre,” Judkowitz says. “Those materials might be sitting on a cart or stand that the robot rolls under and lifts, or sometimes on a conveyor mounted atop the robot, that can then be used with other types of automation equipment.”


The OTTO’s fleet management software provides the location and status of each mobile robot. Clearpath RoboticsIn the zone
Like all robots, OTTO must be trained before use, which requires a human to guide the multi-wheeled wonder via joystick on a walkabout of the facility. This map is then relayed to the fleet management software, fine-tuned with speed limits and safety instructions, then shared with other OTTOs as the fleet grows. If an OTTO encounters an obstacle in its daily routine, it simply moves around it and continues on its mission. 

Any significant changes to the factory layout would require re-training, but even here, the company is taking steps to make the OTTO even smarter than it already is. The system can already decide when to divert from the shortest path, but Judkowitz notes that they are currently working on continuous mapping technology, where a robot can automatically upload map modifications to the Fleet Manager.

“Regardless, it’s quite easy for the OTTO to
reroute itself based on infrastructure changes,” he says. “We worked with a customer recently that was looking at a traditional AGV solution, but the person responsible for the project argued that the magnetic tape would be a problem anytime they modified the factory floor. He was right—by the time he got approval for the OTTO, they’d already rearranged the warehouse. It was a big win for him, and the company is quite happy with their system.” SMT

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