Who Is Gomtec, the Collaborative Robotics Company Acquired by ABB?

Here's why Swiss automation giant ABB is buying a small robot arm company

3 min read
Who Is Gomtec, the Collaborative Robotics Company Acquired by ABB?
Bernd Gombert [right] from Gomtec demonstrates the Roberta collaborative robot arm at the Automatica trade show in 2014.
Photo: Automatica

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

Automation giant ABB announced today that it has acquired German robotics company Gomtec in order “to expand its offering in the field of collaborative robots." The news is just another sign that lightweight, flexible robot arms is one of the hottesttopics in industrial robotics. The announcement may also have left many wondering who is Gomtec?

As ABB's official announcement says, “Gomtec, based near Munich, Germany, is a privately held company that develops mechatronic systems combining mechanical, electrical, telecommunications, control and computer engineering for customers in diverse industries."

Video: Gomtec
Gomtec, acquired by ABB, has developed a family of six-axis modular collaborative robots called Roberta, with base pricing between €27,900 and €32,700.

Indeed, Gomtec is a 25-employee firm based not far from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), from where it all started. The company was primarily owned by Bernd Gombert, a prolific 55-year-old mechatronics engineer with more than 100 patents and a serial entrepreneur. Gombert worked at DLR as a researcher from 1989 till 2001, and one of his projects was the development of the LBR (now commercially available as Kuka's LBR iiwa).

In 1991, he invented the 3D mouse and founded Space Control GmbH, which was eventually sold to Logitech (currently 3Dconnexion). In 2000, he founded eStop GmbH to commercialize electromechanical brakes for the automotive industry. Siemens VDO acquired the company in 2005. Then in 2008, eStop's core team left and founded RG Mechatronics, which was essentially a consulting firm.

In November 2011, AVRA Surgical Robotics, a U.S. company that wanted to develop a surgical robotics system, approached Gombert. To pursue development of the surgical robot, a newly created subsidiary, MIS Robotics, entered into an agreement with RG Mechatronics, which agreed to conduct the development and manufacturing of the surgical robotics system.

In the next six months, AVRA provided to its subsidiary loans totaling over US $4.5 million. But by the end of 2012, the funding arrangement started to become troublesome. Gombert terminated his connections with AVRA in March 2013, but in the meantime RG Mechatronics developed the surgical arm.

Later that year, Gombert acquired RG Mechatronics GmbH and started converting the surgical arm into an industrial collaborative robot. In April 2014, RG Mechatronics GmbH was renamed Gomtec GmbH to reflect “the change in commercial direction from consulting engineers to robot manufacturer." Then in June 2014, Gombert unveiled its collaborative robot arm at Automatica, right next to Kuka's booth.

Gomtec's robot is actually a family of six-axis modular collaborative robots, called Roberta, with base pricing between €27,900 and €32,700. The lightweight robots use custom-made brushless motors and harmonic drives. They come with an optional simple two-finger electric gripper or an advanced one with integrated cameras, an optional 6D input device with an illuminated rotating ring called RoboCommander, an optional force/torque sensor, and an optional safety package. The robot's links are made of aluminum and covered with plastic coating. The robot has no torque sensors in its joints, unlike Kuka's LBR iiwa.

imgABB's new dual-arm collaborative robot YuMi, unveiled this week. It will sell for US $40,000.Photo: ABB

Gomtec used KEBA's KeMotion robot controllers for their collaborative robot arms, so it will be relatively easy to switch to ABB's IRC5 controllers. I can't help but admire ABB's swift business decision to acquire Gomtec. With YuMi [see photo right] for handling small parts (500 g) and the Roberta family of collaborative robot arms (which will certainly be renamed) for larger payloads, ABB suddenly became a major player in the field of collaborative robots and a direct competitor to Universal Robots.

However, although RAPID is one of the best robot programming languages, ABB will now have to develop intuitive programming user interfaces for their collaborative robots. Otherwise, you would need a college course like mine to learn how to use these robots.

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How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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