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What’s the Real Difference Between an Autonomous Robot and an HMI?

Autonomous robots are any robot that performs a task or behavior with limited human oversight. While this is an emerging technology, robots already function in this way in many circumstances – unfortunately, every one of those are highly structured, mass manufacturing operations. For manufacturers who have more variation in their parts, or businesses that simply don’t function in structured environments, autonomous robots truly are the next step in automation.

However, in the rush to proclaim autonomous “supremacy” many companies have foregone the fundamental principle of limited oversight in unstructured environments and instead opted for HMIs – Human Machine Interfaces. These are interfaces that generally rely on touchscreens or simple UIs by which humans can set parameters for defined operations, allowing robots to adapt in limited circumstances (i.e., parts all have the same shape) without the need for additional programming. 

With that key difference in mind, it’s important to understand what is an autonomous robot and what is simply an HMI-based solution – built on custom integration. A few of the considerations go as follows:

  • Autonomous robots function in various unstructured environments, while HMIs rely on defined workflows with explicit commands
  • Autonomous robots allow in-house engineers to evolve systems over time, while HMIs only all solution providers to deliver a one-off integration
  • Autonomous robots can provide value beyond what human oversight can anticipate, while HMIs are explicitly operator-driven and controlled

Autonomous Robots Function in Varied Unstructured Environments

Autonomous robots are primarily useful because they can function on the basis of parameters and process models. Rather than requiring specific programming for each and every action they take. They can move and respond to their environment while respecting constraints and basic modelling, as well as while taking in information from integrated and related systems. 

For example: a programmable access controller on a factory floor might be able to indicate the position of parts hung on a conveyor and even tell the conveyor to start and stop when positioned in front of an autonomous robot. Depending on the robot’s means of perceiving the product it operates on, that robot could then execute a process (whether it’s painting, assembly, welding or other critical value-adds) and subsequently adapt to different parts as they come along. 

In this circumstance, the robot is fully integrated with other industrial control systems, allowing it to act in a coordinated and intelligent manner while being able to operate with broad general instructions, rather than specifics for each and every part. 

Autonomous Robots allow even the most demanding manufacturers (like those in aerospace) to meet high quality goals with limited operator inputs.

An HMI Is Built Specific to Individual Workflows

An HMI is about as simple as a robot interface can be, but simplicity for its own sake is not always a good thing. For instance, if your HMI is too simple, you may be missing out on certain process optimization options or – worse yet – only be allowing for certain parts and workflows to be respected while that sort of functioning may not be useful to every context or type of manufacturer. 

For instance, you may have an HMI installed to assemble or paint different large windows and doors. Ultimately, the HMI can be scoped with a certain part window in range – let’s say doors up to 10 feet high and window frames up to 6 feet long. As long as parts never exceed or confound those specifications, the HMI may be a cost-effective solution (though integration can still be costly). However, once an 11 foot door or a 7 foot window frame comes along, all hell may break loose.

HMIs are convenient for predictable operations, but as soon as workflows evolve, they can get left behind. Source: Packaging Strategies.

An Autonomous Robot Can Give Engineers New Process Models and Capabilities

Ultimately, the ability of an autonomous robot to function depends on the durability of its process models and its ability to integrate with peripheral sensors and hardware. Where this is possible, integrated development environments could give autonomous robots the ability to learn new applications according to the specification of engineers, without the need to be completely reengineered by their original provider for each and every application. 

For instance, Omnirobotic’s AutonomyOS™ is built to be both robot and process agnostic, meaning whatever hardware or layout is required could one day be addressed by the same motion planning logic as customized to your individual facility. With an HMI, the limits here may be palpable in that each and every integration may require its own motion planning and process strategy that is built on the same traditional programming models which currently limit integrators from deploying robots in high-mix environments. 

AutonomyOS™ has no technical limit when it comes to autonomous robotic operations, meaning any process and hardware can be adapted to in the long term.

An HMI Is Built Solely by the Original Provider

An HMI is effectively a one-stop-shop for very specific parts and applications. They can rarely be adapted or improved upon without being replaced entirely. They may not always be the right investment because, ultimately, manufacturing is moving faster than ever, meaning that the way in which you process parts could be forced to change in order to meet exacting customer demands. The longer you fail to adapt, the more likely it becomes that someone else will.

As such, most HMIs can only even be built and modified by original integrators. Usually, trying to adapt those systems to new layouts will render them almost entirely useless. In a world where flexible manufacturing is more essential to everyday success, is it really possible for HMIs to measure up?

HMIs require many of the same inputs that manually programmed robots do. Even where some systems are adaptive, they may not actually adapt to every aspect of your production. Source: Siemens.

An Autonomous Robot Provides Value-Adds Beyond What Human Oversight Can Validate

The core of autonomous manufacturing robots is autonomous motion generation. This means, for certain processes, that greater precision can be achieved for any application no matter what the actual instructions for the robot are. 

Why is this the case? Let’s consider a curve, for example. While a traditional programming tool might allow a programmer to set different points and articulate a radius, most cases require point-to-point programming that is not always set at a fixed angle compared to the surface being processed. In the case of an autonomous robot, a machine can break down a 3D reconstruction of a curved surface and process an infinitesimally accurate robot motion in seconds.

The fact remains, with an HMI, you may simply not be getting high-quality programs – and that’s ok. Human beings were not put on this earth to program robots – at least not down to the mundane levels of detail that very often lead to quality issues, rework, and rejections that manufacturers struggle with in traditional deployments. 

An HMI Only Automates Operations, but Every Value-Add Must Be Operator Driven

HMIs request instructions and operate based on specific sequential instructions each and every time. While there may be exceptions, HMIs clearly don’t function “autonomously” and while many “autonomy providers” may claim to provide this, what they’re often doing is providing a sophisticated HMI that actually limits the workflows and means of engineering that a manufacturer can use to achieve their process goals.

Are you a manufacturer that values throughput? Do you expect high quality outputs no matter what process you use? Are you wanting to adapt to market changes without having to completely recapitalize your facilities? In all of these circumstances, HMIs may be an answer, but autonomous robots are DEFINITELY one.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before.

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