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Wistron's Wifundity robots adopt modular design for better environment

by DIGITIMES

A typical day of Wifundity autonomous mobile robots (AMR) starts at dusk, when office workers have gone home to their families. In the dark office buildings, the UV disinfecting robots go down the aisles, beaming UV rays in all directions to kill germs and virus in the air. They can also enhance their disinfecting work on conference rooms and doorknobs where people frequently come in contacts daily. The AMRs return to their hubs to recharge as soon as they finish their work.

These AMRs will start serving in hospitals, shopping malls, exhibition centers, parking lots and office buildings this year, as its creator, the AI and Robotic AMR division under the Wistron Corp, will implement more than 20 projects with their strategic partners in the aforementioned scenarios this year.

Dominic Huang, Wistron deputy GM of the Business Unit III & AI and Robotic AMR division vertical business group, told DIGITIMES that the name "Wifundity" is coined out of "Wistron" and "profundity".

"We started from an internal project, got the support of the group to do research and development, including visiting the iREX robotic show in Japan to gather market information." Huang said they decided that Wifundity robots will go modularization in the first place, because they want the users to upgrade their robots easily and adopt various applications to achieve unique user experiences.

Most of the AMRs have sensors, so does Wifundity. It is able to shun obstacles, stop or slowdown with artificial intelligence (AI). It is also able to change its behavior modes automatically in accordance with the modules mounted on the core platform.

"Wifundity not only has applications in the service sector, it also has access points that can be integrated with the roller or lift on the shelves or assembly lines of the factories," said Huang, who added that Toshiba has collaborated with them to mount robotic arms on the Wifundity core platform and make the AMR into a cobot.

Let the robots do dangerous, repetitive and low value works

What inspired Wistron, a consumer device electronic manufacturing service provider, to build robots? "We realized that low birthrate is a big problem for many countries. During the pandemic, shortage of labor is another issue that caught our attention," Huang emphasized that Wifundity's vision is to enhance the value of mankind, not to replace them by robots. "We hope, by using robots to do work that is dangerous, repetitive and monotonous, people can spend more time doing things they are good at and are high value-added, such as interpersonal communications."

For example, Wifundity AMRs are used to assist the treatment of pollutants and controlled drugs in hospitals or in the disposal of high-risk wastes at manufacturing sites. "If UV disinfection robots can be used to disinfect the rooms of quarantine hotels before the cleaners go in there, it will significantly lower the risk of infection as those workers will be exposed to viruses in the air even though they are equipped with masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), if no measures were taken to lower the virus level first."

The beauty of modularization

Wifundity differentiates itself from other competitors that produce stand-alone robots with a module design. For example, when it is equipped with a UVC module, it becomes a disinfection robot. If it is equipped with a delivery module, it becomes a delivery robot. If a kiosk display is mounted on the core platform, it can move around in the shopping mall and interact with customers in the retail scenario.

Different applications are implemented through different modules by sharing the same core platform. The user can carry out different functions by mounting different payload modules in different scenarios, but all the robots can be easily managed on the same platform dashboard. Huang said the components and parts in the Wifundity AMR are also designed in modules.

The cloud dashboard platform developed by Wistron also allows the users to monitor all the robots performing different services in different locations. "Our robots can go upstairs or downstairs by taking elevators now," said Huang, who said the platform is able to control the elevator system as well.

Since Wifundity is a series of products managed at cloud level, and not stand-alone products, so their business model is a "platform as a service (PaaS)," where customers purchase the robots and subscribe to the platform service with monthly fees and enjoy software updates. Yet Wistron also has flexibility in offering the option of "Robots as a Service (RaaS)," where customers can lease the robots and subscribe to the platform service. "Our software is aggregated by many clusters, which is similar to the way Microsoft 365 works," said Huang. "We charge by the clusters of AI selected by the customers, which is highly flexible."

Huang added that the design of Wifundity modularization not only cuts carbon emissions and material wastes, but also help customers prevent repetitive capital expenditure. "This way they can save the money and use it on improving their operations or the wellbeing of their employees."

In addition, modularization allows the users to control robots in parking lots and in food courts on the same cloud platform at the same time. "This would not be possible if different functions of robots belong to different systems," said Huang, who emphasized that the data collected by Wifundity robots will also be transmitted onto the cloud for data analytics and gain business insights.

Wifundity is friendlier to the environment, because when the users want to upgrade the function of their robots, all they need to do is replace the MCU and IPC, no need to throw away the old ones and buy new ones, said Huang.

He emphasized that modularization is Wistron's value proposal for AMR, and the consortium itself has a greater vision at group level. Wistron has invested in green energy and lithium battery recycles. "We have also been recycling plastic wastes and reproduce them, trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible."

Collaborations with business partners

Wistron's strategic partners are also able to use the cloud platform to save time trying to develop new modules for different functions. Examples are the robots which can mop the floor, They were developed by one of the strategic partners, not by Wistron. The collaboration with partners also help create more applications, improve the services and expand markets faster than trying to do it all by itself.

Their strategic partners include Castec International Corp and Advantech in the smart manufacturing domain. Wifundity robots are also going to provide services at the office building assets owned by Cathay Life Insurance, which is the largest landlord of commercial or office space in Taiwan. Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co. (FETC) will be working with Wifundity at parking-lot scenarios, while National Taiwan University Hospital and Tri-Service General Hospital are going to deploy Wifundity robots to service their hospital floors. UnaBiz, the SigFox communications startup, is their partner for sensor communications technology.

Wifundity also has signed a long-term contract with Nankang Exhibition Center to provide disinfection services throughout the year, whenever there are exhibitions held at their venues.

Overseas market expansion

Will there be plans for Wistron to spin off the AI and Robotic division that created Wifundity? Huang said there is indeed a target set for IPO in the next three years, but it depends on how well the business grows.

"In the next few years, we expect to see rapid improvements in the artificial intelligence technologies at Wistron," Huang said, when the robots become smarter and smarter, with the capability in visual AI and remote operation upgraded, customer adoption will rise as well.

As for expansion plans in overseas markets, Huang said they are already in touch with companies in Japan, Singapore and Malaysia for such collaborations. "They are seeing eye-to-eye with us that we need robots to take care of low value-added work and let human do the more sophisticated and complicated work in the post-pandemic era," said Huang, adding that more and more people are showing interest in robot dispatch services.

 

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