05 December 2019

How New Robotics are Unlocking Untapped Areas in Manufacturing.

By Michael Frankland

Ever advancing and always fascinating, the world of robotics is in a constant state of transformation.

Traditionally, robotic automation has been limited to high structure, low variable industries like electronics and automotive.

But now we’re seeing it being implemented in non-traditional industries with non-uniform products.

Installing robotic automation in non-traditional industries comes with its own set of challenges, requiring a highly adaptable system that can see, grasp and place items of varying size and shape. This can be expensive, complex and take several months, even years, to install.

A robotics revolution is on its way.

Now we’re are seeing brave pioneers in the gripping and vision space offer flexible, easy-to-use solutions to help democratize robotics throughout manufacturing.

First, gripping.

German company, SCHUNK, have excited everyone, bringing to market the world first certified HRC (human/robot collaboration) gripper. Based on a human hand, this gripper is primarily designed to be used collaboratively - alongside humans.

Not only does this look very cool, it’s incredibly functional.

Its human-like dexterity helps it make more subtle and intricate movements, while its self-programming allows for an easy integration process. With additional benefits including its suitability for the mobile application field and low energy consumption at 24 V DC, it’s an advantageous tool.

For now, this has been mostly applied to bin picking and within research settings. However, more non-traditional industries like medical, cosmetics and food & beverage (F&B) are beginning to implement it too.

These are new areas of manufacturing for robotics and relatively untapped. They’re rife with opportunity, meaning current pioneering players within it are set to profit.

This is the case for Soft Robotics who are solving the grasping challenge through material sciences, born out of Harvard University, to create a plug and play adaptable gripping solution.

Their innovative, patented grippers have embedded material sensors which can pick and place objects of high variability, without damaging the product itself – typically an issue with traditional grippers.

Soft Robotics’ technology is leading the way, being applied in areas never explored by the robotics industry like clothing, ecommerce, powdered bags (laundry, chemicals and more) and F&B.

It could be applied anywhere. We are unlocking robotic automation in industries which have a far larger potential than the automotive and electronics industries.”

Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics

The US company’s flexible and adaptable solution is robot agnostic, meaning it can work with any robot. It’s often seen paired with robotics from FANUC, ABB and Yaskawa Motoman.

While it has become an industry norm for technology like this to take months to program, Soft Robotics can do it in hours. With such a revolutionary system, it’s unsurprising that Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics, told me that their biggest challenge is convincing people that their gripper is as good as they say. Believe me, it is.

At trade shows I’ll set-up the system for different products. Within an hour of receiving these products, I’ll be able to show the audience an application. This is often met with shock, as it’s not been done before.”

Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics

Other companies have focused on developing effective vision solutions, giving robotics eyes and the ability to adapt to items of varying shape.

Canon USA’s 3D Random Bin Picking solution is one of the leading systems in this area to support complex bin picking applications – an area which has perplexed engineers for years.

Offering high speed image recognition of target parts, one-time measurement of 3D pose and RV1100+ option measurement field expansion, it’s a highly functional system.

While the Canon system is effective, its costly and requires a good level of technical understanding to operate. That’s why Pickit3d are being preferred by many major industrial and collaborative robotic manufacturers including ABB, Fanuc, Yaskawa, Staubli and Universal Robots.

This Belgium based company are democratizing robotic picking solutions, proving popular with many low-to-mid scale companies for their affordability and accessibility.

While many companies are focussing on advancing the vision of their application, Pickit3d’s goal is to makes the integration process quick and simple. With this saving time and money, it’s what makes their system so attractive.

With a lot of systems you need to be a programming expert to install them, with us it’s simple. Anyone could do it.”

Sam Biermans, Channel Account Manager

Canadian company, Omni Robot, are making similar noises in this area, combining 3D perception with AI to create one of the world’s first self-programming robots.

Its self-programming means that this system can adapt to changing products, for example, spraying aerospace parts – which is typically done by hand. It also takes away the cost of engineers programming or reprogramming the system, making it a cheaper solution for manufactures.

It’s exciting time for robotics, with everything moving toward autonomous, easy-to-install, adaptable robotics. Manufacturers are now seeing that it doesn’t have to take months to install robotic automation and that its benefits are not only limited to industries with uniform products.

While companies like SCHUNK, Soft Robotics, Canon, Pickit3d and Omni Robot have helped us see the light, new players will likely help drive robotics into the untapped industries. It won’t be long until we see more major players like ABB, FANUC, COMAU join the party.

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By Michael Frankland

Michael Frankland leads a team specialising in automation. Michael has experience working globally, building teams on behalf of many major clients. Having published articles about innovative technologies and the impact of Brexit on the industry; Michael’s passion and dedication to the global automation space is there for all to see.

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