Cobotic Startups – Flexiv: is adaptive robotics the new frontier?

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Ever heard about adaptive robotics? If not, it is time to put things right because it will be a hot topic in the next future, Flexiv’s honour. In 2016, a team of brilliant researchers from Stanford, after years of studies on AI and robotics, decided it was time for a new generation of more intelligent and dexterous machines, providing them with the sense of touch and vision. The result? Flexiv, a groundbreaking robotics startup developing Rizon, the first adaptive robot on the market.

We had the great pleasure to interview Mr. Yunfan Gao, Brand Director at Flexiv, and to get an exclusive story about their journey and their plans.

[CW] How was Flexiv born? What was the initial idea?

[Yunfan Gao] Flexiv was founded by us, a group of scientists from robotics and AI labs, at Stanford University in 2016. Before starting the company, we have been researching on cutting-edge technologies in the field of robotics and AI, and found that mainly due to hardware limitation, force control has not be fully studied and widely applied in industrial robots , which we believe to be the key to a more intelligent and dexterous robot that perform like human with sense of touch and vision. After visiting many manufacturing plants, we found there still exist a large number of simple but tedious procedures that require manual work, and some of the working environments are even hazardous to human. Therefore, driven by shared vision that technology should be utilized to benefit and create new opportunities for humankind, we found Flexiv.

[CW] Who were the first industrial partners who believed in your company and who are your partners now?

[Yunfan Gao] We have reached out to a number of customers in the industry of 3C OEM, tier one automotive suppliers and integrators that embrace new robotics technologies and formed strong partnerships with a few leading companies to complete POC projects. Also, since the technology launch, we have attracted many other partners including Intel, ST Engineering, SCHUNK and other well-known integrators and distributors.

[CW] What advice would you give to someone wanting to launch a startup in this sector?

[Yunfan Gao] Identify the key value of your technologies to your target customers at the very beginning, and try to stay as close as possible to your customers. Try to iterate your service or products as rapid as possible.

[CW] Can you give as a definition of adaptive robot?

[Yunfan Gao] The adaptive robot fuses high-performance force control, computer vision and AI technology. It can adapt to changing and uncertain environments and automate complex tasks with ‘hand-eye’ coordination like human. There are three main characteristics of adaptive robots:

High tolerance for position variance: the adaptive robot is able to perform tasks despite fluctuation in positioning, for example, manufacture or mounting tolerance of workpiece, accumulated position error in production line.

Disturbance rejection: the adaptive robot has the ability to maintain high performance amid significant changes in the environment, which allows the robot to complete force-guided task under unmodeled disturbance from base, object or even human interference.

Transferrable Intelligence: adaptive robots can handle wide variation of tasks and support rapid redeployment. The force-guided operation can be easily transferred from one task to the other with hierarchical intelligent framework – the low level executes fine force control, the middle level focuses on basic manipulation skill, which the high level dedicated for perception and task planning.

You can find more information in our whitepaper released on our website.

[CW] Let’s talk about your robot Rizon… Can you give us an overview of its features? Which is its unique selling point?

[Yunfan Gao] As the first applied product of our adaptivity technology, Rizon employs 7 degrees of freedom and unique custom joint design, together with embedded computer vision for flexible hand-eye coordination and proprietary force and torque sensing technology, which strongly improves the performance and cost efficiency. On the other hand, Rizon owns hierarchical intelligence system with dedicated processor powered by advanced AI and robotics algorithms, enabling sophisticated perception, force-guided manipulation and flexible planning with real-time adaptiveness.

As for unique selling points, Rizon has sophisticated force control and can accomplish better hand-eye coordination like human; Rizon can adapt to complex environments and automate complicated tasks, such as high-precision assembling, curved-surface handling, etc. Automation solutions based on our adaptive robots can be very cost-effective, simple with less peripheral devices, and provide high flexibility for quick changeover.

[CW] Which applications are most requested from your clients?

[Yunfan Gao] Adaptive robots can be applied in diverse industries such as automotive, consumer electronics, aerospace, agriculture, logistics, health care, and retailing. In existing application scenarios, adaptive robots mainly finish tasks of plugging and assembling, curved-surface handling, picking and sorting, etc.

We have received a variety of requests. At this stage, we focus more on manufacturing and demands from this field, especially for high precision assembling and fine surface polishing.

[CW] Where do you see Flexiv Robotics and more generally this new class of collaborative and adaptive robots in 5 years?

[Yunfan Gao] We regard the adaptive robot as a new generation robot, comparing to traditional industrial robots and collaborative robots. In the future, I think adaptive robots can automate a lot of manual work, to help customers solve many tasks which can’t be automated before. And adaptive robots will be deployed to more industries, from manufacturing, to service and more sectors.

[CW] Could we have a sneak peek at your 2020 plans?

[Yunfan Gao] We will keep improving our full-stack solutions and services based on valuable feedback from our customers, deliver batch orders with smooth deployment process, and delve into some industry verticals that may scale up fast in coming years. We will also kick off new product and application development cycles where our adaptive robots can provide unique benefits to the end-users.