What It Takes to Build a Robot in Belarus
Viktar Khamianok worked as the CEO of his own IT company before deciding to leave the position in hopes of pursuing his lifetime dream of building robots. Within a year and a half, his new project — Rozum Robotics — grew from mere concept to fully-fledged business quickly getting its first pre-orders for the self-designed collaborative robot.
Though the road to success was not an easy one for Viktar. Instead of purchasing ready-made components manufactured by other companies, Rozum Robotics decided to manufacture their own components in-house. In an interview, Viktar gives a behind the scenes look at the development process and touches upon common issues faced when working in the field of artificial intelligence.
According to Viktar, there are two ways one can engage in robotics—building cheap models as a hobby or engineering fully-functional solutions.
The company realized that developing their own electric frameless motors and geared servomotors was the easiest and most affordable option. It took them less than a year to accomplish the task, and the results allowed them to offer a self-designed motor costing as little as three thousand rubles with plans manufacture a product with an even lower price tag.
Viktar is sure that anyone with enough expertise in electronics will appreciate the solution he designed.
“It is our major achievement that we managed to fit all the components into a compact footprint and save some extra space in the middle for wiring,” says Viktar. “Due to deep integration of components, we provide two essential benefits. Firstly, we can control the production costs, so we can offer lower prices as compared to other manufacturers. Secondly, we can have whatever customization we want. With ready-made components, it is a long shot.”
Building and learning along the way
In a robot, the motors are connected together through its joints, but can be operated independently. Humans have to only program the required sequence of actions to get the movements they require. Developers are certain that any person can easily cope with the task—just “grasp the robot and show it how to move.”
Viktar comments, “You get something like, Motor 1, turn to such and such angle at such and such speed. Motor 2, lift the arm and move it to some definite sector.”
According to Viktar, much of the knowledge learned about the manufacturing process was gained as work progressed: “We knew little about robotics, at first. We had to learn how to shape a raw piece of metal into something we could use. Measurements, power calculations, control methods—we had to dig up for the information on our own, swallowing two-three books a week. In autumn 2017, we finally got a prototype arm. That’s when it struck me, we had a real product to offer.”
Then, the company launched a marketing campaign. The robot was demonstrated at large exhibitions in Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, and US. Though interest in the product was high, Rozum Robotics had only a prototype to offer in the beginning.
Now, Rozum Robotics is about to release its first 15 robots that are to be installed at Belarusian Enterprises. The products are 30% less expensive similar products on the market designed by competitors, though the price can vary depending on specifications and customizations (e.g. payload).
What you can do with a robot depends on its end effector. You can mount any end effector as required for your production process—grippers that can pick and move things from one place to another, drills, cutting, or welding tools.
“There is nothing new about the idea of robots used in manufacturing. In fact, they have already been long and extensively used. However, industrial robots are typically heavy and fast, which makes them unsafe for humans. So, it’s been a common practice to enclose them into special work cells: you pull the cell door, and the machine stops immediately,” explains Viktar. “Plus the specific programming languages. Sometimes, it took a whole year to get the robot working.”
“The current trend is to build collaborative robots that can work side-by-side with a human. They are smaller, lighter, easier to program, and packed with sensors that won’t let the robot do you any harm. The operation principle is the same as that of the elevator doors. As soon as the system senses an obstacle, it stops. Even small manufacturing enterprises can afford such collaborative solutions. The benefits are numerous: improved quality, increased production output. Robots never get sick or tired, they don’t need vacations.”
Hard-working Robots vs. Imperfect Humans
The introduction of robots into industrial manufacturing has raised concerns about people losing their jobs to machines.
Viktar comments, “A hundred years ago, the majority of population was engaged in agriculture. Should things remain the same, we would now be out of our comfortable offices, working in the fields. I doubt the hard labour could make us any happier. Thanks to innovations in agriculture, people got a chance to try some other things.”
“Saving us the drudgery of manual labor, robots let us switch to more intellectual tasks,” resumes Viktar. “For instance, robots can help with quality control. Suppose, we have produced a number of refrigerators, and we need to test their operation. The robot could insert a plug into a socket, check operation in different modes, and make a decision whether the tested product is ready for sale. Why then do you need a human to perform the routine tasks?”
The Rozum Robotics team can tailor robot specifications (capacity, work radius, etc.) to meet their customer’s specific requirements and needs. For universities, this creates a more affordable alternative for purchasing robots for educational purposes rather than going through a more expensive manufacturing enterprise that requires a model with extended functional capabilities.
The robot prototype at Rozum Robotics office can play checkers. At exhibitions, as the developers say, there’s always a crowd of people willing to play checkers with the robot. Odds may be slightly against human competitors as the robot prototype “thinks” eight moves ahead.
The head of the Rozum Robotics company compares the current culture of robotics with the computer industry in the 1980s. Back then, people were rather skeptical about computers for home use. Everyone thought the devices were good for business or scientific endeavors only.
In its work, Rozum Robotics follows a similar rule. First, make a product for industrial use, and second, investigate other possible applications.
“Our middle-term objective is to make a robot suitable for daily use,” says Viktar. “We have negotiations going on with people who are willing to adapt our product to their specific needs. For instance, we talked to healthcare specialists. They want to use our robot with an ultrasound sensor to diagnose bone fractures, instead of the hazardous X-ray. There was also a guy who wanted to fit the robot with a high-speed video camera to film commercials. Also, a company that supplies agricultural equipment to American customers, believes they could use our robots to automate tomato picking in their greenhouses. Areas to apply collaborative robots in production are numerous: our robotic arm can be a great assistant in your business”.
“I am not such a great visionary to project the future of robots. Our aspiration is to provide people with the right tool, but they will have to think of a way to use it themselves. The Apple company could have hardly developed all those applications we use in our daily life without their community of third-party developers,” adds Viktar.
Manual vs. Machine Labour
Notwithstanding Belarusian Enterprises interest in Rozum’s robotic arm, the company expects most major orders to come in from abroad.
According to Viktar, the world’s average robot to human worker ratio is 69 robots per ten thousand workers. In Russia, it’s just 1; in South Korea, it’s about 300. No one has ever conducted a thorough research study in Belarus, but things seem to be just a little better here than in Russia.
“The potential of robotics is huge, but some still think that it’s not worthwhile buying robots when you can hire humans to work for peanuts,” Viktar comments. “Another issue is the quality of human work. Humans have headaches and family problems, which can affect how efficiently they work.”
Viktar compares these concerns to issues found in footwear manufacturing. A human can either apply too much glue or too little of it—both resulting in defects. Robots always apply just the right quantity, thus enhancing the quality of production output.
Speaking about top brands turning to manual production, Viktar assumes: “I think, there will be a specific niche, where individual production will thrive. Perhaps, human labor will remain in demand there for quite some time. Take, for example, the Swiss watches that they still assemble manually. The deeper automation will penetrate into manufacturing, the more we will value hand-made things, beyond where most of us could afford them. In fact, tailor-made suits are already a luxury.”
The issue of artificial intelligence
In one of his earlier interviews, Viktar predicted that we would soon see artificial intelligence robots draw paintings, compose music, and write literary works.
“A painting or a piece of music is always an insight into the artist’s soul. It‘s like you get a glimpse of what the artist felt as he or she created a work of art. People are already experimenting with neural networks that create paintings. I’m also curious to understand how it all works, why the work comes out the way it is. Robot-creators will have their own fans, who will conceptualize their ideas.” —Viktar shares his vision
Commenting on the supposed dangers of artificial intelligence, Viktar comments: “A few months ago, I was offered to sign an open letter, already signed by numerous celebrities, including Elon Musk. It was about whether the artificial intelligence should have the discretion to open fire during a battle, or should we leave the decision to humans. It is not a simple and easy question. It’s like, nuclear weapon is not all about the evil, just because of its negative potential. I believe, it has helped us to evade quite a number of fights. The same is true for the artificial intelligence. I don’t feel I have the answer yet. I am sure, though, that any invention should serve the good, not the bad. In reality, things are quite different. Anyway, these are humans who make ultimate choices. I hope the choice about robotics will be the right one.”