Robert Little is the CEO and co-founder of ATI Industrial Automation, a world-leading developer of robotic accessories and robot arm tooling. He holds a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and has been awarded several patents for breakthrough robotic technology. Since his election in early 2019, Little also serves the Robotic Industries Association’s Board of Directors. With his expertise, ATI has become a trusted supplier of robotic end-effectors and automation products such as Automatic Tool Changers, Multi-Axis Force/Torque Sensing Systems, and Material Removal Tools. For over 30 years, ATI has designed and manufactured the highest quality automation solutions to satisfy unique customer needs and have expanded sales and support operations into Mexico and China.
You have been in the robotics industry for many years. In your opinion, what have been the most significant overall developments over the past decade, and what do you expect to see in the coming decade, particularly in terms of advances in end-of-arm tooling?
There is before collaborative and after collaborative. Before collaborative robots, I saw the prices of industrial robots drastically fall. I had also seen the implementation of force control and watch vision systems get very good at distinguishing parts. After collaborative robots, I have seen the cost of integration for small robots go down and smaller companies giving robots a try. Collaborative robots allowed the system to be a lower cost through the ease of use and closer robot and human contact. Now I see industrial robot companies who are producing easy to use robot technology combined with safer robot arms. I see this trend accelerating: Easier to use robots and easier to implement. This has created another trend I have watched, the growing non-automotive market. The robot market has been closely tied to the automotive market, but with the cost going down other markets have started to use robots more frequently. Now with the total cost of robot ownership being much lower, new robot applications are being created. Another step in the future of robots is the improvement in sensors to allow robots to make decisions. We see the need for force control to solve problems in assembly, testing, and material removal. The material removal market has been the toughest mass-market application for robots. The creation of easy to use, yet tough and targeted, end-effectors will break the stigma of robot material removal being difficult. In summary: The total cost of robot ownership has fallen dramatically setting up robots to take on new and tougher applications through end-effector and sensor developments.
During the last 20 years, manufacturing companies have seen a 25 percent improvement in productivity, as a result of automation. This has caused a recalibration in the tasks of the workforce. How does this benefit not only the company but also the worker? Also, what other changes do you see coming to the workforce?
Robots solve the dirty, dull, and dangerous applications. Workers should not be subject to unsafe work nor repetitive work that might cause health issues. Robots aid workers to focus on their craft: Work that requires thinking and is more beneficial for their well-being.
ATI has been named as one of the fastest-growing technology companies in North Carolina. Can you share some of the expansion efforts you’ve made, and what skills are most important to you?
In the early days of the robot market, there was great hope. Robots were the solution to many company issues. But in those early days robots were oversold and they underperformed. We stepped in during a crisis of trust that robots were having. It was very important from the start that ATI product over performed. We took on the task of building up trust not just with our end-effectors, but with the entire robot industry. Our success is tied to our customers who have rebuilt their trust with us. To build a product people could trust we emphasized engineering. Engineering always comes first at ATI.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many vulnerabilities in areas such as supply chain, business operations, manufacturing processes, etc. What are the most important lessons you’ve learned that will help your company be better prepared for future pandemics?
The COVID crisis was a test for us, and we passed. Our workers were resilient. We had staff working from home effectively and staff working in the factory ensuring on-time delivery.
Robotics, Machine Vision, Industry 4.0, Artificial Intelligence, 5G, Blockchain, Quantum Computing – the number of technological advancements since ATI’s start in 1989 seems dizzying these days. What is your advice to users on how to get started with automation and how to make sure they are staying abreast of all the latest developments?
Integrators are critical. They are the brains of the robot industry. You can find the best listed on the RIA certified integrator page. Customers cannot keep up with the vast amount of confusing robot information, but the integrators can.
While we all know downtime can help relieve stress, several science-backed studies confirm you actually improve productivity when you take time to enjoy life outside of the office. What are some of your favorite things to do in your free time?
I love to research. Sometimes it is a new application, a company, or a CEO—like Elon Musk. I study history and look for lessons for my own work—I just finished Grant by Ron Chernow. I have taken on the study of family history—last year I completed the reading of my Great Grandfather’s legal papers (over 10,000 pages). With the added stress of this crisis, I make sure to walk frequently and get outside and enjoy the fresh air—I average 6.5 miles a day.
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EXECUTIVE ROUNDTABLE: The State of the Global Robotics Industry
Co-sponsored by the International Federation of Robotics
- Michael Cicco, President & CEO, FANUC America Corp.;
- Klaus Koenig, CEO, KUKA Robotics;
- Robert Little, CEO, ATI Industrial Automation;
- Milton Guerry, President, SCHUNK;
- Doug Olson, President & CEO, Harmonic Drive