Potato chip bags and tight workspaces have something in common. Both have posed challenges to robotics manufacturers. End users have made their needs known and today’s robotics makers have responded with a variety of next-generation solutions for areas as diverse as packaging and assembly.
Products with unique shapes and thicknesses ordered in small quantities were among the drivers for innovation in automation and robotics. Assembling products in small spaces became another need. The good news is that the costs for these next-generation solutions have come down creating opportunities for small companies to compete with large ones.
No one wants to eat at a table next to someone who has his elbows out at both sides and bumping into the people next to him. Engineers with EPSON Robots looked at large robots operating in small work cells. Their elbows were a problem as noted in the article Next-Gen Assembly Robots Turn Heads on the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) website.
The solution came with the Flexion N-series, a six-axis robot that moves “through” itself with folding-arm technology instead of around itself. A video clip shows the technology at work and how it can be used in production lines where traditional six-axis robots have challenges.
Saving space and creating faster cycle times are double benefits.
A robot arm’s end effector determines the arm’s functionality. Potato chip bags, fabrics, and fruits and vegetables need a delicate yet dexterous touch. Several companies that developed from research hubs have been changing the way robots grab. Mass customization led to the development of Grabit, a solution spun out of independent research firm SRI International that uses electroadhesion to pick up items.
The end effector can stack items more closely together to save space, a relief for warehouses in urban neighborhoods. A write-up on Robohub.org, Manufacturing next-generation robotic manipulation, points to low costs, end-effector capabilities, and the need for agile assembly as causes for innovation in robotic design and manufacturing.
Robots have become more affordable with custom capabilities. Small manufacturers in the U.S. can compete on a global scale with big players as noted in a Wall Street Journal write-up Meet the New Generation of Robots for Manufacturing.
Labor costs are less and “may allow the U.S. and other high-wage countries to get back into some of the processes that have been ceded to China, Mexico and other countries with vast armies of lower-paid workers.”
Not only can robots do a variety of tasks, they can also perform quality control. A Kuka robot uses force torque sensors to assemble parts like a tube inside a dishwasher. Its sensitivity allows it to jiggle and maneuver the fit like a human.
Force torque sensors give robots a tactile sense of touch by sending force and torque feedback to control the robot’s positioning.
Today’s robots have another benefit by working alongside people and extending their capabilities in places like factories, hospital operating rooms, and down on the farm where labor is in short supply.
Sensors and software have boosted the IQ of robots as detailed in Intelligent Robots: A Feast for the Senses, on the RIA website. Technology is a means to improving manufacturing and customer satisfaction. End users who have implemented automated solutions have seen improved profits while their customers receive products that are high quality.
The on-going development and use of robots for this generation and the next has proven beneficial for everyone involved.