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October 31, 2018 | Tom Ballard

UT-related start-up AUBO Robotics now has 260 employees

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

A local start-up founded by a University of Tennessee (UT) professor and some colleagues four years ago now has 260 employees and two major offices in China along with its U.S. headquarters on the Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus.

We’re talking about AUBO Robotics, founded as Smokie Robotics in 2014 to produce six axis lightweight robots. Today, the company is selling its original lightweight industrial robot with a 5 Kilogram (Kg) payload, but also plans to release two new versions later this year – a 3 Kg model and a 10 Kg version.

“The Kg refers to the weight of the payload the robot can handle,” Peter Farkas, AUBO’s Vice President of International Sales and Marketing, explained. He’s a Connecticut native who lived and worked in his home state his entire life until selling a manufacturing company and moving to Knoxville two years ago to set-up the sales and marketing network.

“Jindong Tan started the company with several others,” Farkas said. “Their first intention was to make a less expensive robot for educational purposes.”

Traditional robots are not inexpensive. In fact, Farkas says they can be “very cost prohibitive for many universities to purchase. The company switched gears as the project evolved, seeing more opportunity in the industrial market.”

The current sole model – the AUBO-i5 – is described as a Cobot or collaborative robot. What’s that mean? Farkas says it’s all about safely operating in a space where humans are also working.

Perhaps your stereotype is what I brought to the interview: robots deployed to do all sorts of activities with few, if any humans nearby. These machines do repetitive work, based on how they are programmed. Think of a factory floor where the robot is typically programmed to do one task repeatedly.

Yet, the world is changing, and automation is entering a number of different sectors that would not have considered using a robot just a few years ago. That’s where AUBO Robotics is focused. Its robots are designed so that they can work closely and safely within a workspace that also has humans working literally side-by-side.

The robots are user friendly, flexible, low cost and very easy to move and re-deploy. Another key advantage is the fact that no programing skills are needed to initially set-up one of AUBO Robotics machines or redeploy it later for a different task.

“This type of robot has opened the doors for every type of company – from automotive to artists – because of their simplicity and cost,” Farkas said. Yes, you read correctly. There is an artist in New York City using one of the robots for his work.

“Our robots are designed to take the dull, dirty and undesired work away from people,” he adds. “We can basically adapt it to anything.”

AUBO Robotics machines can also be customized with add-ons.

“You can have our robots as simple or as complex as you want,” Farkas explains. “You can attach other systems. Some of our students implemented a vision system that gave the robot eyes. We also have a sensor to give it feel.”

Involving students provides a symbiotic relationship. They can do their projects in the company’s facility at Cherokee Farm and also share their expertise.

AUBO Robotics Vice President says forecasts a 1000 percent growth in the demand for robots like the ones it is producing over the next decade. That potential also comes with a challenge.

“To sell in most countries, you have to have a certification,” Farkas says. “Certifications are very expensive.”

AUBO Robotics has already secured the required certification in this country through the Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory program of the U.S. Department of Labor and the European Union Certification program.

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