ISO Standard On Modularity Will Lead To Development Of Open Plug-n-Play Modules For Service Robots?

This is a Guest Post by Professor Gurvinder Singh Virk, Dean, School of Engineering, UPES

Globally, for over 20 years, robotics has been trying to develop from its established base of industrial robots for manufacturing to new service robot applications. But progress has been slow. The recent breakthrough in the publication of the first ISO 22166-1 service robot modularity standard, presents the development of open modules for service robots, leading to smoother inter-operability and plug-n-play/ plug-n-work capabilities.

Significance of ISO standards:

International standards generally focus on safety, quality, and sustainability. Inter-operability tends to get left aside as companies emphasize on full systems/products. With increased technology complexities, companies are finding it difficult to innovate at the ‘system’ level as the parts that should be used are too basic.

Only large companies have the resources to develop their own specialised parts and can set up good component supply chains to make their products have commercial advantages. The components suppliers they choose are usually small companies who agree to manufacture the bespoke part for the large organisations but as the supply chains are “closed” because it is difficult for them to sell their products/parts to other companies. This is because the interfacing is normally bespoke and very specialized, so other companies cannot use the parts in a straightforward manner. Therefore, most hi-tech companies spend considerable time developing the interfacing of parts available on the open market so that their products will have some competitive edge.

What is needed are common parts that can be used in multiple ways and thereby open up new markets in a straightforward manner. This is the aim of the ISO 22166-1 standard which presents requirements and guidelines on how robot modules should be designed from hardware, software as well as composite perspectives to allow modules to be connected or “configured” with other modules to easily realise application-specific designs. This will allow a common approach to robot design so modules can be interfaced and replaced by other modules from different manufacturers.

Benefits of Standardization for the companies:

The ISO standard is aimed at companies who make components used by larger companies to make bigger more complex systems. The components are normally the backbone of economies as they are used to make most systems and products. The new standard allows components suppliers (who tend to be SMALL companies) to turn their “component-products” in to “module-products” with defined interoperability interfaces so that open supply chains module markets can be encouraged to be developed. The modules are easily configured and reconfigured to make applications specific design more easily. 

Any robot sector can start to benefit from it and the sooner such open modules are realised, the sooner the possibility of other sectors can be also developed. Although the standard applies to service robotics, it can be designed and commercialised to other hi-tech sectors such as machines, automation equipment, consumer appliances, etc. It makes sense to start with applications where there is highest potential for the new technology. In this respect, consumer robots would appear to have good prospects, including domestic servant robots, physical assistant robots (assistive exoskeletons), and even medical robots.

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