Vecna has invested heavily in not only its own technology, but in developing a strong robotics ecosystem that supports industry growth
By Mark Shortt
Daniel Theobald believes that many manufacturing managers and engineers haven’t adopted mobile robotics because they still haven’t seen a robotics technology that can handle their full range of automation needs. “They’re not really interested in sort of putting piecemeal solutions out there,” said Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Vecna Technologies, a Cambridge, Massachusetts company that develops mobile, autonomous material-handling robots for use in warehouses, order fulfillment centers, and manufacturing facilities.
To bridge this gap, Vecna has invested heavily in research and development over the past two decades in in an effort to bring full, end-to-end automation to the logistics and manufacturing industries in a very practical and reliable way. Today, the company offers manufacturers, warehouse managers, and shippers a range of mobile robotics platforms for use in tugging, lifting, conveying, and telepresence remote monitoring.
“We realized that before bringing it to market, we really wanted to be able to offer something that could handle the complete range of needs that they have, all the way from handling full pallets completely autonomously, to picking up and dropping off pallets in a facility, to large tuggers that can pull four carts with 4,500 kilograms on them,” Theobald told D2P in a phone interview. “And all the way down to very small, very economical, fully autonomous robots that can carry a single case or tote around a facility in a virtual conveyor belt type of model.”
Collaborative Robots Are Safe in Human-Centric Environments
Driving all the way across a large manufacturing facility to retrieve a box of parts and bring it to where it needs to be is not always the best use of a factory worker’s time, but it’s something that needs to be done. Transporting pallets, cases, and containers around a manufacturing facility is a time-consuming, highly repetitive task fraught with risk and difficulty. Vecna’s mobile autonomous robots are aimed at solving problems that are common in manufacturing plants and warehouses, such as the time and cost required to horizontally transport materials around the facility, and the ability to grasp, manipulate, and move large, heavy items.
“Often, you have problems with safety and reliability,” said Theobald. “Sometimes people are, unfortunately, crashing forklifts into racking, or—God forbid—into people, and that type of thing. And so making horizontal transport of materials in a warehouse or a manufacturing facility much more reliable, much more cost effective, and much safer, is a big target.”
Today, collaborative robot arms—lightweight, smaller robot arms that can lift up to 10 kilograms, are making inroads in manufacturing facilities. But there aren’t many robot arms out there that can lift a heavy load, yet are light enough to be mounted on a mobile platform and used on a mobile robot that drives around the shop. Vecna’s robots can handle large heavy items, which traditional mobile robotics are unable to maneuver.
“That’s another area that we’ve been working on—automatically grabbing cases, totes, and those types of things, and being able to deliver those from one side of a facility to another,” said Theobald. “Certainly, anything where you’re using a fork truck or a pallet truck right now, we can automate. Another area is line side replenishment. So, for example, if you have kits of parts that are needed on the manufacturing line, our RL350 robot, for example, can drive over to the kitting area, pick up a shelving unit that has the kit on it, and then take it to the right place on the manufacturing line, again, saving a tremendous amount of time and resources so that you can keep the staff focused on things that humans are really good at, like assembling and manufacturing, and leave the boring, repetitive jobs for the robot.”
Vecna states on its website that its name is derived from the Czech word věčný (fem. Věčná), which translates to “eternal.” It’s another way of saying “our company and products are built to last.” In accordance with this credo, Vecna offers what Theobald calls “the industry’s safest and most reliable navigation system.” Its robots are built to operate within human-centric environments and, while capable of handling up to 3,200 pounds, are said to rapidly and safely respond to dynamic environments, coordinate on their own, and report problems as they arise.
“We’ve really focused on the study of collaboration,” said Theobald. “Technology and humans working together is almost always the best solution, and one of the things the customers really like about our solutions is that it’s not ‘a robot or a human.’ Our solutions really allow humans and robots to work together effectively and to augment each other.
“If you’ve got a big surge in orders, a lot of automated solutions that maybe just weren’t scaled appropriately to handle that surge are just out of luck. But the way we design our solutions, because they are collaborative, generally, that means that you can bring in more people and help meet the needs, and you’re not stuck in this ‘people or robots’ or ‘people or technology’ dichotomy. We think that’s a false dichotomy. When you build solutions correctly, you can really leverage the strength and flexibility of people and technology effectively.”
A Multi-Level Safety Architecture
So how are the robots able to work safely and naturally with people, especially in dynamic, changing types of environments? Theobald said that as Vecna developed its robotics platforms over the past two decades, it chose some of the most difficult operating environments for the robots and solved those problems first. For example, its robots have long been deployed in hospitals.
“The unique thing about hospitals, unlike a factory, a warehouse, or a shipping facility, is that you don’t just have employees in the environment—you also have patients and children, and it’s very, very dynamic,” he noted. “And so our thought was, if we can safely build a robot that can maneuver effectively in those environments, then a lot of these other more industrial environments would be certainly solvable.”
Ultimately, the sensors and the intelligence of the robot are very important for safe operation, said Theobald, adding that Vecna employs a multi-layer safety architecture.
“At the lowest level, we’ve got, essentially, a fail-safe safety system that has very few lines of code and ensures that the robot is not going to run into anything. If a human operator is trying to drive the robot into a person or into shelving, the low-level safety system will actually shut the robot down, so it simply won’t allow it to crash into something. It will, basically, shut it down and put on the brakes.”
On top of the lowest level are two or three other layers of safety architecture systems that each do their job to ensure safe operation. The goal, of course, is to never trigger any of those safety layers, and to ensure that the robot’s operating system is always performing in a safe manner. “But when you get to that level, there are millions and millions of lines of code, and it becomes, essentially, impossible to absolutely ensure that it’s always going to do the right thing,” Theobald said. “So that’s why you build these multi-layer safety architectures.”
Platform and Sensor Agnostic Systems
“I’ve said for years that robotics is 95 percent software,” said Theobald. “The hardware is super important; that statement is in no way meant to devalue the contributions of the mechanical engineers, the electrical engineers, and others. You’ve got to get the hardware right. But it really provides the foundation that you can actually build a robot on. The robot, ultimately, is the software, the intelligence that’s taking in sensor data, understanding the world, and deciding how to move the robot.”
Vecna builds robotic systems that are platform agnostic, as well as sensor agnostic. The company has developed algorithms that enable robots to learn how to drive multiple types of equipment.
“We’ve built this robot brain that you can then strap onto, essentially, any piece of equipment, whether it’s a forklift, a truck, a shuttle, a trailer, or a tractor, and turn it into a robot,” Theobald said. “Many, if not most, of the robotics solutions out there are sort of hard-coded for that particular robot. Ours, instead, is more generic: We have the exact same software running on the pallet track and the person transporters, the shuttles, and the smaller robots that can go around and lift things, all the way down to our really small, lightweight robots.
“So that’s the platform agnostic piece. It doesn’t care whether it’s an Ackermann steering or a [Motor] Powered Caster. There are all these different types of ways that robots, or equipment, steer; we call it the kinematics of the platform. Our system can deal with any of those.
“And then the other piece is that our system can deal with, essentially, any suite of sensors. We’re able to make it so that the robot, as long as it gets enough sensor data, can use it—much more like a human would operate in an environment. Our robots basically look around, see where they are, understand how that fits into the bigger map of the world, and then you’re able to tell them to go from point A to point B, and they use their sensors to navigate to the environment. If there are people in the environment, the robots actually will slow down and operate at a slower speed when they’re near humans. When there are no humans around, it’s safe for the robots to operate faster. So they really take advantage of that sensor data to try to optimize their performance, given what’s happening in their local environment.”
Theobald was asked what engineering and design disciplines are represented in both the design and the build of Vecna’s robots. The answer: all of them.
“Mechanical, electrical, software, machining, design for manufacturing—I mean, you name it,” he said. “In some sense, robotics is like the culmination of machine design. You know, it’s sort of the pinnacle of what we’ve been able to achieve as a species in terms of bringing all of these complex science and technology pieces together to build an automated device. We’re using [everything from] advanced machine vision algorithms, to cameras, to big data analytics. Essentially, all of the advanced technology is being leveraged to build more capable, smarter robots.”
Vecna also states on its website that its mission is “to empower humanity through transformative technology.” The company’s motto is “Better Technology, Better World,” reflecting its determination to measure success by the impact it makes on the world. Vecna’s leadership team—which also includes Mike Bearman, Josh Ornstein, Genta Spahiu, Bill Donnell, and Debbie Theobald—strongly believes that “people matter, and that businesses can be profitable, ethical, and socially responsible.”
“We’re really committed to the idea of technology making life better for everybody on this planet,” said Theobald. “And part of that is, we believe in putting our effort where our mouth is. We pay our employees to spend up to 10 percent of every work week contributing to community service efforts. A lot of people on our team do things like mentor young people in technology—the STEM type—science, technology, engineering, and math. A lot of people do things like go and donate their time to the food bank, or Habitat for Humanity. So that’s just part of our overall philosophy that everything we do should be making the world a better place.”
Growing the Next Generation of Boston-area Robotics Startups
Tom Ryden was looking forward to taking a little time off after the robotics company he co-founded, VGo Communications, was acquired by Vecna Technologies in the summer of 2015. That all changed when Daniel Theobald asked him to help guide a new non-profit organization that he co-founded to support and grow the robotics industry in greater Massachusetts.
“I thought it was a great opportunity,” said Ryden in a phone interview. “I’m really impassioned about the mission—I think we have the ability to grow a very strong robotics cluster here in Boston, and so I joined that effort.”
Ryden now serves as executive director of that non-profit, MassRobotics, located in the heart of Boston’s burgeoning Seaport Innovation District. Under his direction, MassRobotics offers programming and events—like seminars on technology or VC investing—that are designed to help innovative startups connect with established technology organizations. The organization also offers startups affordable shared lab space and a co-working space that’s designed to facilitate collaboration.
“We had a couple of drones flying the other day in a closed-off area,” said Ryden. “And we’re talking to a company that wants to bring in a test—a little test tank—for underwater-based drones. Those are the types of things that we are excited to be able to support.”
MassRobotics was founded by people, including Daniel Theobald and Tye Brady, the chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, who were already running robotics companies in the area. One of the things they recognized was that it’s difficult for a startup to get established in Boston. Although students at MIT, Harvard, or Northeastern have access to some excellent labs, they lose that access once they graduate.
“If you’re a startup and you need space, it’s expensive in Boston or Cambridge,” said Ryden. “And if you need, in addition to that, some test areas or some prototyping equipment, it can be very cost prohibitive for a startup. We share those expenses across the companies, so we offer very affordable space, and it’s really a cheap way for companies to come in and really stay in the Greater Boston area. We didn’t want to see that talent move to other parts of the country where it might be cheaper for them to get established.”
High Expectations for Growth
MassRobotics’ facility on Channel Street includes an 8,000-square-foot open workshop, along with a 2,000-square-foot lab and prototype space equipped with a machine shop, 3D printer, and robot testing platforms. It’s all part of a bigger mission to support the growth of a new generation of emerging robotics and connected device companies by providing them with the resources needed to develop, prototype, test, and commercialize their products.
“Our goal really is to grow the community here, the ecosystem, and have it be recognized as the hub of robotics, the center of robotics, for the state, for the country, and, eventually, for the world,” said Ryden. “We have the opportunity here, I believe, to really build a huge cluster of companies that can develop some very unique technology, and we just want to grow it right here in Boston.”
The facility’s co-working space is similar to others in that it has a central area where people can gather— including an open community kitchen that encourages face-to-face interaction and conversation.
“We can draw the companies out and get them into discussions about technology or the challenges that they face,” said Ryden. “As an example, we host a person from the Open Source Robotics Foundation, the robotic operating system group that’s developing the open source Robot Operating System (ROS). One of their people is here at our facility, and they’re a great resource because they can help educate people on how to use that software in their platform.”
When D2P spoke with Ryden in early June, MassRobotics was preparing to host an event that day to educate manufacturers on the potential for using robotics, automation, and Internet of Things technologies to enhance their productivity. One of the goals of the event, co-hosted with the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) and Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP), was to introduce local manufacturers to companies capable of providing these solutions.
“We’re bringing in a number of startups that are developing, essentially, robotic arms, picking devices, or grippers, for example, that can help automate aspects of manufacturing,” Ryden said. “And we’re also bringing in a number of small- to mid-sized manufacturers who have challenges on their production floor, and seeing if we can get them exposed to some of this new technology.”
The event targeted the specific needs of small- to mid-sized manufacturing companies. Although larger manufacturers have been using automation and robotics for years, many of the smaller and mid-sized companies are struggling to understand how robotics will impact their operations. MassRobotics has been working with some of them to answer questions like “What can collaborative robotics—robots that work side by side with humans—do for us, and what does that really mean on a shop floor? How do we utilize the technology, and how flexible is it? Can we really make it adaptable to the shorter runs that we provide?”
“We’re working to help spread the word about that technology and what’s coming, and get these manufacturers up to speed on these capabilities,” Ryden said. “It’s a very active area of robotics right now.”
A Shot in the Arm for Small and Medium-Size Manufacturers
Earlier this year, MassRobotics became an industrial partner in the new Advanced Robotics Manufacturing (ARM) Innovation Hub, announced in January by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as part of the Manufacturing USA Institute network. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, the ARM Institute is described by the DoD as a “national, public-private partnership designed to foster the U.S. manufacturing ecosystem by developing and facilitating the early adoption of novel robotic solutions.”
In addition to asserting U.S. leadership in advanced manufacturing, its mission is reported to include the empowerment of American workers to compete with low-cost labor abroad; the creation and sustainment of new jobs to secure U.S. national prosperity; and the lowering of technical, operational, and economic barriers for small- and medium-sized businesses, as well as large companies, to adopt robotics technologies.
“The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute is specifically targeted around robotics for small- to mid-sized manufacturers—what needs to be developed to make that technology more readily accessible,” said Ryden. “That institute is just getting started, but MassRobotics is part of it and hopes to have a role here, in Massachusetts, convening some of the companies to work on challenges that the institute puts forth.”
Ryden added that bringing the newer, collaborative robotics technology to small- and mid-sized manufacturers will boost their ability to reshore—to bring back some of the manufacturing that has moved offshore because of labor costs.
“Our society is becoming much more focused on mass customization: Everybody wants more unique product, which will lead to shorter runs. And if we can do that effectively here, locally, with some new technology, then I think that’s really going to be a boost for the manufacturing economy across the country,” he said.
Daniel Theobald said that collaboration is central to MassRobotics’ mission.
“One of the things we noticed was that in the mobile robotics, collaborative robotics industry, being a young industry, there’s a real lack of standards, a real lack of collaboration, and a real lack of industry cohesiveness,” he told D2P in a phone interview. “Part of the reason we founded MassRobotics was to try and encourage this pre-competitive collaboration where robotics companies can support each other and we can try and build the industry together. We can share information and opportunities, and work together to create reasonable standards of interoperability—all these things that are sorely lacking right now.”
Another big part of MassRobotics’ mission, Theobald said, is around STEM education. “It’s about helping to motivate and educate the next generation of engineers and scientists, and to help ensure that robotics are being used to make the world a better place for everybody,” he said.
Theobald is encouraged by what he has seen so far with the work going on at MassRobotics.
“It’s been very successful; we’re seeing a tremendous amount of collaboration and support starting to happen,” he said. “It’s still early on, but I feel really good about the progress that has been made, and I think we’re moving in a great direction.”