An ISO standard for robot modularity is a quantum leap forward
In a recent interview, Professor Gurvinder Singh Virk, Dean, UPES School of Engineering, talks about the requirements and guidelines on the specification of modular frameworks, open modular design, and plug-n-play integration of modules for bespoke service robots carrying out specialised tasks in various environments
Robot modularity has been an active area of research for several years and many innovative solutions have been developed but have not made a significant impact on the world stage because the methods were too individualistic and could not muster wide appeal. To assist market developments, ISO robot modularity is essential and such a robot modularity standardisation project was started in 2012. The project led to the recent publication of ISO 22166-1 Modularity for service robots. Professor Virk was the Convener of the standardisation project.
Globally, robotics has been trying to extend its established base of industrial robots for manufacturing to service robot applications for over 20 years. But the progress has been slow. The recent breakthrough- the ISO (the International Organisation of Standardization) presents the development of open modules for service robots, leading to smoother inter-operability and plug-n-work capabilities.
What can you tell us about the first ISO standard on robot modularity? What was the need to lay down the ISO standards?
International standards focus on safety, quality, and sustainability. Inter-operability is normally left to the end or even overlooked as organisations emphasize on full systems or products. With the growing complexities in technology, companies find it challenging to innovate at the ‘system’ level as the parts that should be used are not up to the mark or cannot be easily integrated. Large companies have the necessary resources to develop their specialised parts and can form good component supply chains to make products with commercialisation advantages. Usually, small companies are normally chosen as the component developers and suppliers as they agree to manufacture customized parts for large organisations who guarantee to buy a certain number of the items per year. However, as the supply chains are “closed” it is difficult for the component developers to sell their products to other companies. This is primarily because the component interfacing is specific and therefore other companies cannot use the parts in a straightforward manner. Consequently, companies starting out must spend significant time developing the interfacing of parts available in the open market to gain a competitive edge.
The ISO robot modularity standard aims to allow for the use of commercially available parts in multiple ways and thereby to allow more easy opening up of new markets; in this respect ISO 22166-1 aims to assist the development of open module-based supply chains for service robots. The robot modularity issues are classified into basic modules with hardware or software aspects and composite modules. Requirements and guidelines are formulated so that module-based design approaches can be realised allowing application-specific service robots and service robot systems meeting customer’s requirements to be easily configured. This allows robots designed using a modular approach to be changed by changing or replacing modules to achieve different functionalities. The key advantage is that such modules configuration/ re-use can be done by using modules from different manufacturers.
How are enterprises using this standardization to their advantage?
Modular standardization is aimed at enterprises that manufacture components and parts used by other (normally larger) companies to make sophisticated systems. Such component manufactures normally form the backbone of the economies of most countries as they are used to add value where ever they are used in realising final systems and products. The new ISO 22166-1 standard allows small companies to transform their “component-products” to “module-products” with widely acceptable standardised interoperability interfaces. This encourages open supply chain module markets to develop using these products. These modules are easily configured and reconfigured to make applications specific designs.
Is there enough awareness about ISO standard for robot modularity? Are companies willing to adopt it?
It takes time to create awareness of new standards and trends to develop in industry. For this, I am working with various organisations in several countries such as China, Taiwan, UK, and Korea on facilitating the creation of specific ecosystems based on regional requirements by developing ISO 22166-1 compliant module for specific service robot applications. I will also be trying to encourage an ISO module based ecosystem in India and hope UPES will be able to play a valuable role in this.
Although the standard applies to service robotics, it can be designed and commercialised to other sectors such as machines, automation equipment, consumer appliances, etc.
The goal is to convert normal “closed supply chains” to “open supply chains”.
Which are the sectors that can leverage this standardization and how?
The robotics market can benefit and the sooner the modules are available, the sooner the possibility of other sectors to use them for manufacturing their specialised products. Industries should start with applications where there is most potential for the adopting the new modular technology. In this aspect, consumer robots would have good prospects, including domestic servant robots, physical assistant robots (assistive exoskeletons), and even medical robots. The main advantages to be gained are that quality can be improved with reductions in cost; such win-win opportunities are seldom seen and this is why I am very keen to encourage widespread adoption of modular approached in product development.
Will this ISO standard have a bearing on the design and development of robotic systems going forward?
The ISO standard allows complex system design to be broken into simpler modules. The modules can connect easily with other modules with “plug-n-play” or “plug-n-work” functionality. This further allows the application of specific robots to be rapidly accomplished with minimal effort to achieve cost-effective solutions.
How important is this framework and how are module designers going to benefit from it?
The interoperability defined by ISO allows individual manufacturers to focus on new technologies, how their products should connect and work with other products. The new ISO 22166-1 standard guides on how connectivity and functionality requirements should be achieved.
As the robotics landscape evolves, what are the problems that are likely to arise? What solutions can robotics specialists provide?
The technicality of components and lack of resources are some of the challenges faced by the robotics market. For instance, robotics needs better sensors, powerful motors, more dense batteries, strong and lightweight materials, and more sophisticated algorithms and decision-making behaviours.