For some time now, ”cobots” – collaborative robots working together with humans with no protective fences – have been progressively making their way into the food products and confectionery industry. Smart Robotics is one of the pioneering companies in this field. Douwe Didde, Business Development Partner at the Dutch company, talks to ”sweets processing” about the process and the benefits of the new robotic concepts.
By Hans Strohmaier
Heico Sandee, one of the two founders of Smart Robotics, had been working in various positions in the field of mechatronics and robotics for a good while when he met with Mark Menting at a large company. The two men were unsatisfied with the limitations of the conventional generation of robots. They recognized that most robotics applications were created for a specific project and had to be individually programmed, only adding to the high costs for each installation and reducing flexibility, limiting functionality and increasing the need for large spaces.
On the other side, they saw that what consumers want and therefore require was constantly changing. They knew this would necessitate that production and logistics companies of the future would have a greater need for more flexible and innovative automation solutions. In 2015, Menting and Sandee set up shop at the High Tech Campus Eindhoven and started up the company Smart Robotics with the aim of developing intelligent, more flexible robots and expanding the application possibilities for cobots. Using sensors, these collaborative robots interact directly with humans, and therefore don’t need to be separated from them
in protective settings during the production process.
The start-up’s basis was the development of independent robotic software for the fast, flexible deployment of robots and cobots in various logistics and production processes. Starting with four employees, Smart Robotics quickly developed into a successful company employing over 70 predominantly young and extremely dedicated specialists that today services customers in more than 15 countries. Despite major competitors, the Smart Robotics concept makes this company a winner.
“Our goal is to become a leading supplier of intelligent robotic products for packaging and logistics applications in the fields of e-commerce, shipping, pharma and FMCG", declare Menting and Sandee unanimously. Today, Smart Robotics services customers in a variety of different markets including food products, pharma and FMCG, both in Europe and beyond via its extensive sales network. The companies include operations of all sizes in the baking and confectionery industry as well as the snacks sector that are confronted with increasing consumer demand and a range of different product series.
“With our smart software, advanced motion planning, 3D-vision feedback, our user-friendly interface and our online service, we offer customers the opportunity to automate their operations in a flexible, safe and innovative way. Programming is no longer necessary”, says Douwe Didde, Business Development Partner at Smart Robotics, describing the benefits of this new and unique marketing approach. “The artificial intelligence-based software platform is structured so that we can send the cobot to the customer, who can then easily install the device on its own in the space of only two hours. This has also been an important selling point during the past year of Corona.”
The cobots do precisely what the customers wants, and the solution makes it very simple to teach them new tasks. The company’s application fields include software development, along with the Smart Palletizer and the Smart Item Picker. The Smart Palletizer is a compact end-of-line cobot solution for ultra-flexible palettizing, while the Smart Item Picker represents a user-friendly individual-article order picking cobot solution for the flexible, efficient picking and placement of a wide array of articles.
Their uncomplicated installation and reduced spatial needs that require no protective space also make the wide range of sizes and models of the Smart Robotics machinery ideal for smaller and mid-sized companies looking to upgrade existing space. “We are very flexible in complying with the needs of our customers, and the mobility of our cobots means we can also place them at different positions along the respective line”, says Mr Didde.
He continues, explaining that the Netherlands have been the focus of a great deal of interest during Covid-19 crisis. “The demand for flexible automation on the logistics market has grown exponentially as a result of the strong growth in e-commerce, the diminished workforce and the necessity of reducing costs”. Manufacturers can also get a taste of what to expect by testing out or renting the cobots from Smart Robotics.
“We provide our smart robots for a period of four weeks, and if the customer doesn’t like them, we pick them back up”, emphasizes Mr Didde. During this phase, the production companies can see for themselves just how safe the Smart Robotics concept is for their production workers and for logistics. In addition, the expense associated with procuring a cobot is far below that required for a robot. Digitalization also means that the machines can be upgraded and updated online.
To ensure good servicing of the markets, the Smart Robotics specialists also work in a number of countries with other packaging machine manufacturers and their agents. All things considered, the decision-makers at Smart Robotics see particular potential at this time for their company philosophy. Mr Didde says their order situation is very healthy, and production capacity is booked up for the foreseeable future. To secure its growth, the company is also supported by a number of investors, including Innovation Industries and the Mirai Creation Fund, itself backed by the Toyota Motor Corporation as an important limited partner. “We’re standing on solid ground, and we’re eager to continue shaping the future of industry”, explains Business Development Partner Mr Didde in closing.
(from left) Mark Menting and Heico Sandee, the founders of Smart Robotics, and CFO Eric Sas. (Images: Smart Robotics)