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The Many Uses of Soft and Flexible Robots

Robots aren’t only cold as steel and hard-headed. Many have become soft inside and out. Soft robotics is making an impact on the market in many different ways.

Advantages include safety features like not having sharp edges and the ability to handle products of different shapes and sizes. The softness gives even more flexibility than what their metallic counterparts have had.

Research and development on the most effective materials is continuing as well as finding new applications, but a look at soft robotics may give you ideas for your own needs.

HOW SOFT ROBOTICS EVOLVED

The stationary metal robot that did one and only one task in heavy industries like automotive defined what robotics was all about. They have been prized for handling repetitive tasks and those that were dirty and dangerous.

Automation began to change as the demand grew for higher quality products while product lifecycles grew shorter. In industries like consumer electronics, robots with delicate force sensing were needed to handle miniaturized components.

Mass customization presented another challenge for the traditional stationary robot. Online ordering of individual items and consumers’ expectations that products would be delivered immediately brought flexible automation into the warehouse and logistics space.

Changes in the marketplace along with trends in components such as sensors becoming less expensive and end-of-arm-tools being easily switched to handle different tasks made robots cost effective investments.

There are simple tasks that humans can do that the heavy robot just can’t handle. An article on the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) website, Soft robots get a grip, details how soft robots are more like “the things we live interact with, like dogs and cats.”

Researchers began experimenting with softer, more flexible materials and found they could more easily mimic human abilities while maintaining the ability to repeat tasks and adjust to changes in the surrounding environment.

Softer, in many situations, has been better.

USES OF SOFT ROBOTICS

Soft robots have advantages like being able to pick up an object as delicate as an egg without crushing it. Another one is adjusting to the environment. “Soft and deformable structures are crucial in the systems that deal with uncertain and dynamic task-environments,” notes the Robotics and Automation Society of IEEE in an article Soft Robotics.

This includes working with living cells and human bodies. But the write-up also points out the challenge of finding usable materials that can be controlled like muscles without following a rigid path.

Discoveries take place as soft robotics is being used in a wide variety of applications. A few examples are bio-medical, warehouse and distribution, and bin picking.

The Harvard Biodesign Lab is using soft robotics to help patients who’ve had heart failure as noted in a write-up on the laboratory’s website by developing “a benchtop cardiac simulator and a Direct Cardiac Compression (DCC) device employing soft actuators in an elastomeric matrix.”

Custom orders with limited runs have been tough to automate in manufacturing but the use of flexible end-of-arm-tooling has helped. The same robot can be equipped for different tasks so short runs don’t have to be overly expensive.

In the warehouse and distribution space, an order of one item has been tricky to process. The company Soft Robotics of Cambridge, Massachusetts builds “grippers and control systems” for pick and place tasks. A video shows how the firm developed high speed precision for handling fresh eggs.

In warehouse and distribution, picking up lip balm versus laundry detergent has been a puzzle to solve. The article, Robotic Bin Picking – The Holy Grail in Sight on the Robotic Industries Association website describes the benefits of adaptive gripping technologies. 

From medical technologies to warehouse and distribution, soft robotics is becoming the go-to solution.  

Automation takes many forms with growing uses across all industries. Stay on top of trends and available trainings through A3automate.org.