Kitchener-based robotics firm takes ‘clear path’ to success
Stephen LawAutomation / Robotics Wireless Engineering Supply Chain robotics
Clearpath Robotics Inc. leads the way in designing unmanned vehicle robotics
EP&T Magazine conducted a Q&A session with Clearpath’s CEO Matt Rendall. Here is what he had to say.
Q. Provide us with a brief overview of Clearpath and how it got started in Kitchener.
Clearpath was started in 2009 by four University of Waterloo graduates and quickly became a leader in unmanned vehicles for research and development; they worked with customers including NASA, MIT, University of Toronto, and Carnegie Mellon. In September 2015, Clearpath leveraged their skills and expertise from developing research platforms and expanded into the industrial market with OTTO, the self-driving vehicle designed exclusively for materials transport. It was customer demands and a market pull that lead Clearpath to expand into the field of materials transport.
Q. Describe the importance robotics plays with industrial companies and manufacturers in terms of improving productivity.
For a variety of reasons, spanning labor shortage, exponential growth, and low interest rate, some companies are not able to sufficiently staff their operation. Additionally, customer demands have changed; consumers now want customization, which means that the supply chain (and processes within) is becoming increasingly complex. Robotics is not new to the industrial sector, but technology has evolved significantly, even in the last 5 years, and now robotics can be used to address these core challenges and help manufactures remain competitive in a global landscape. OTTO self-driving vehicles for instance, are safe, flexible, and provide an easily, scalable alternative for specific tasks. With this technology, industrial companies can experience higher throughput, lower labor costs and increased density. Above all, they can experience a return on their investment typically within 18-24 months.
Q. How can robotics provide Canadian OEMs with competitive advantage on a global scale?
There are essentially three reasons why manufacturers use robots: to reduce costs, improve quality and consistency, and increase throughput so processes can be completed faster than what was previously possible. Additionally, industry 4.0 is emerging and has introduced the concept of interconnected devices and traceability, which is now offered in modern day technology. New robotics technology provides the capabilities to enable full visibility of operations for the factory floor By engaging with them, Canadian OEMs will be able to ensure their modern factories and warehouses are reconfigurable, responsive, and efficient.
Q. Can robotics help some OEMs retain their manufacturing in Canada or even ‘reshore’ it?
Robotics address the common challenges that today’s manufactures face, including an increasingly complex supply chain, labor shortages and constant cost pressures to remain globally competitive. For these reasons along, robotics can absolutely help OEMs retain manufacturing in Canada and reshore.
Q. How important is it for Clearpath to be a contributor of putting Canada’s innovation economy in the global spotlight?
The new generation of robotics is enabled by massive technology pillars that have been in development for the last decade – cloud computing, big data, the internet of things, and mobile computing. Now we’re able to capitalize on these trends to make self-driving vehicles possible. What’s most exciting is how early we are in the history of robotics. To be in this field means that we’re able to have a very meaningful impact on the creation of this industry – we’re able to define the industry. Even more exciting, we’re doing it in Ontario, where we are well positioned with suppliers, customers, talent, and a technology-ecosystem to fuel the growth of the business. At Clearpath, we want to do for robotics what BlackBerry did for smartphones.
Q. Clearpath recently launched OTTO, a self-driving warehouse robot. Which markets and types of users do you anticipate showing the most interest in this development?
The OTTO self-driving vehicle for material transport offers technology that can be applied to a variety of applications within factories and warehouse. The most common applications of OTTO at this point in time are for uses in lineside delivery, long distance transport, conveyance and cell to cell transport. OTTO can also be sold with an application-specific appliance to enable a turnkey solution for the environment.
Q. Describe Clearpath’s recent collaboration with GE and what it means for their customer base?
GE has collaborated with Clearpath on service robot development since 2013 and was one of our first OTTO customers. As we launched our expansion into the industrial market, we also announced that GE became a strategic investor in the company. GE is one of the world’s most powerful and innovative brands; they believe that robotics has the power to radically improve the industries that they serve. As we work with them to transform manufacturing and field service operations with self-driving vehicles, their customer base will benefit from the impacts, particularly with regard to turnaround time because we know self-driving vehicles will improve throughput and efficiency in their process.
Q. Describe the challenges of developing new robotics technologies for competitive industries interested in seeing a quick return on investment.
With any new technology, there is always a level of risk aversion associated with new products, especially in the industrial space. At Clearpath, listening to the customer and iterating upon gathering their feedback has remained a critical part of our development cycle. Therefore, we have been able to address many of the markets’ initial concerns upfront. For instance, we have provided a solution that is built for industry in that it is rugged and reliable. It is safe to collaborate with factory personnel, flexible for changing needs and requires no infrastructure. We have been very successful in navigating this hesitation with customers by demonstrating the OTTO technology, the value it provides, and the level of support Clearpath offers its’ partners.