ABB expands leadership in next-generation AI-enabled mobile robotics

Posted on 11 Jan 2024 by The Manufacturer

ABB today announced that it has acquired Swiss start-up Sevensense, a leading provider of AI-enabled 3D vision navigation technology for autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Sevensense was founded in 2018 as a spin-off from Swiss technical University, ETH Zurich.

“This marks a significant step towards our vision of a workplace where AI-enabled robots assist people, addressing our customers’ needs for greater flexibility and intelligence amidst critical skilled labor shortages,” said Sami Atiya, President of ABB Robotics and Discrete Automation. “Each mobile robot, equipped with vision and AI, scans a unique part of the building; collectively these robots complement each other’s view to form a complete map, enabling them to work autonomously in a rapidly changing environment.”

The acquisition follows ABB’s minority investment in Sevensense after it joined the company’s innovation ecosystem in 2021, the same year ABB acquired ASTI Mobile Robotics. Financial details of the transaction were not disclosed. Following pilot customer projects in the automotive and logistics industries, ABB will integrate Sevensense’s technology into the company’s AMR portfolio, offering an unprecedented combination of speed, accuracy, and payload.

The market for mobile robots is expected to grow at 20% CAGR through 2026, from $5.5bn to $9.5bn and ABB’s AI-powered 3D vision technology is at the forefront of this growth.

Sevensense’s pioneering navigation technology combines AI and 3D vision, enabling AMRs to make intelligent decisions, differentiating between fixed and mobile objects in dynamic environments. Once manually guided, mobile robots with Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (Visual SLAM) technology create a map that is used to operate independently, reducing commissioning time from weeks to days and enabling the AMRs to navigate in highly complex, dynamic environments alongside people.

Maps are constantly updated and shared across the fleet, offering instant scalability without interrupting operations and greater flexibility compared to other navigation technologies.

Today, this AI-enabled navigation technology is already transforming the automotive manufacturing and logistics sectors, delivering value through faster and more efficient operations. For automotive manufacturer Ford, Visual SLAM enabled ABB AMR’s will create efficiency gains in production sites in the US, while Michelin will use the technology in intralogistics at its factory in Spain. Other automotive manufacturers will roll out the technology in the UK, Finland and Germany.

“Offering more autonomy and cognitive intelligence, ABB’s unique market-proven technology paves the way for a shift from linear production lines to dynamic networks. Intelligent AMRs autonomously navigate to production cells, tracking stock inventory as they go and sharing this information with other robots, while collaborating safely side-by-side with humans,” said Marc Segura, President of ABB’s Robotics Division. “With the acquisition of Sevensense, ABB becomes the leader in next-generation AMRs, offering Visual SLAM in Autonomous Mobile Robots, together with an integrated portfolio covering robots and machine automation solutions, all managed by our value-creating software.”

Read a Q&A with Marc Segura, President of ABB’s Robotics Division here

Marc Segura

Can you explain the background behind the acquisition of Sevensense?

It’s a very strategic decision because our customers need more flexible factories to respond to current uncertainty and to tackle labour and talent shortage. We want to provide answers to that, and as such we are progressively building a portfolio of products that can enable these flexible architectures.

We have industrial robots, cobots and AMRs. But to enable real-time flexible factories, current AMR technology is not robust or flexible enough, nor was it reaching the performance levels required. Knowing that,  we organised an innovation challenge where we put out questions to start-ups around the world, with a view to ultimately choose one to work with.

We did this for Visual SLAM technology (Visual Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping), the ability to see the world and map where you are. Of the start-ups that applied to our innovation challenge, Sevensense stood out, so we started to collaborate.

We looked at proof of concepts, and an opportunity arose where we could invest in the company while at the same time also enjoying success with initial pilots, and later on the first commercial orders. So, we decided it was time to join forces. Acquiring Sevensense is a key technology to really lift the value of our mobile robots to be part of that flexible architecture of ABB robotics.

What made ABB choose Sevensense?

The innovation challenge was a very rigorous and thorough process. We had a number of KPIs in place and there were a number where Sevensense were outstanding. The first was easiness. For us that means three things. In the first instance, you don’t need any infrastructure. With Sevensense, you just unbox and just drop the robot into the working environment and it will start to map and navigate. There is no need to calibrate, have reference tags or lines on the floor, and that’s really important.

The second part of easiness is robustness. Because of this technology, our AMRs now can work on real industrial environments. That means uneven and cracked floors, slopes, oil spills, lighting conditions and vibrations.

The third element of the technology’s ease of use is dynamic environments. You can continuously 3D map the world around you, not only at AMR level, but at fleet level, because every time an order is completed, the environment is remapped and reshaped; that creates a great deal of flexibility.

A machine or warehouse can change and the fleet will always know. That means you can always optimise trajectories and paths to be more efficient. It is also exceptional on performance, which basically boils down to the accuracy that we achieve with the system. We can achieve five millimetre accuracy on a two tonne load, running at 1.5 metre per second. And that’s remarkable.

How will Sevensense’s technology be integrated into ABB’s offering?

Firstly, our portfolio of AMRs will all be equipped with Visual SLAM. In fact, our customers that have already tested and purchase this offering have completely abandoned all other technologies and Visual SLAM is their chosen standard going forward. So based on this market feedback, we’re speeding up the roll-out of our portfolio.

Interestingly, and new for ABB Robotics, is that this technology can also benefit other types of robotics OEM in segments where ABB Robotics does not plan to deliver a full product. This means a lot of service robotics such as cleaning, maintenance, inspection or mining robots. So we plan to continue to sell this kit to third-party OEMs to have this ABB insight within this part of the emerging robotics market.

What will the acquisition mean for the future of ABB?

It’s a key component to take this step towards being able to offer the flexible factory. The concept of the flexible factory is very simple. You can segregate the process points from the material flow and really change and balance that in the real-time.

AMRs are a key component of this, because they’re what moves the parts. And without this level of flexibility, autonomy, resilience and performance, it wouldn’t be technically possible. We are now making this commercially available and economically feasible, and we will see an acceleration. It’s a necessary part of our puzzle to make this big vision possible.

Gregory Hitz, CEO of Sevensense, said: “This is a significant moment in our shared journey, as we introduce our home-grown technology to a wider range of markets and sectors. ABB is the ideal home for us to continue scaling our versatile platform for 3D visual autonomy, serving OEMs across the automated material handling and service robotics industries. Together, we will redefine the limits of AI-enabled robotics.”

This revolutionary technology has the potential to impact robotics far beyond AMRs, leading to greater efficiency, flexibility and accuracy throughout production and intralogistics. The technology will also continue to be sold across segments including material handling, cleaning and other service robotics fields under the product name Sevensense.

The Sevensense partnership highlights the success of ABB’s commitment to nurturing the next generation of innovations. Through its partner ecosystem and collaboration with start-ups and universities, ABB develops leading technology for the benefit of global businesses. Sevensense’s approximately 35 employees will continue to be based at its Swiss office in Zurich.

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