In this article, James Taylor, General Manager, APAC at OnRobot, provides his insights on breakthrough gripper technologies that are bringing collaborative automation to a broader audience.
People, cars, our homes, almost everything is more connected than ever before, and that is also true of industrial automation. This age of unparalleled connectivity spurs expectations for faster and more scalable production, but for businesses it is no longer just about automation itself. Instead, the focus has shifted to collaborative automation, wherein multiple tasks of differing magnitude and difficulty can be automated to achieve greater productivity and cost effectiveness than was previously possible.
The market for collaborative automation is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 60 percent, reaching US$12 billion in less than ten years1. Similarly, collaborative robots (cobots), robots designed to work alongside people, have seen increased demand. The International Federation of Robotics reports that annual installations of cobots surged by 23 percent from 2017 to 20182.
Here in Southeast Asia, the industrial automation and process control market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 8.1 percent to reach US$4.4 billion by 20233, signalling the great potential of the industry.
Collaborative applications typically involve humans, robots, robot accessories and objects interacting on varying levels to automate various tasks. These characteristics make collaborative applications easily deployable, reducing costs. The objects or raw materials which come in a variety of forms, shapes and sizes, are a particularly important component in this workflow, which means that modern industrial automation must be able to accurately sense, identify and manipulate them.
End effectors, or End-of-Arm Tooling (EOAT), are the physical interfaces between the robot and collaborative application. These smart and versatile robotic tools empower robots to perform adaptive, higher precision and more intelligent applications that in the past were too complex to automate.
More importantly, these advanced tools enable collaborative applications, bringing employees and robots together, working safely side by side with to the user-friendly nature, intuitive programming and safety features of EOAT-fitted robots.
Since these applications demand that objects be handled in extremely flexible and autonomous ways, poorly selected EOAT incapable of meeting those demands can severely limit an application’s collaborative potential, leading to process delays and harm to the production line.
Modern grippers, however, are up to the challenge. They are designed with state-of-the-art gripping techniques and able to have each step of a gripping task programmed well in advance. Importantly, this means the grippers know the correct angle, precision and force to apply while handling an object before the task even begins. Applications such as pick and place, weld, deburr, apply material, load and unload can all be done with this EOAT.
Asia is expected to purchase 67 percent of all grippers. This demand will support the gripper industry to double its sales by 20234.
Breakthrough Gripper Technologies
Force-based gripping technique, which is useful in applications such as packaging and palletising, machine tending and assembly, enables flexible production with minimal downtime. In-built force/torque sensors have integrated force control software and proximity sensors with optical technology that help grippers detect an object’s location, even when it is not precisely positioned. This technology is well-suited to collaborative applications since the gripper can “see” and “feel” the objects using its built-in force/torque sensing. This is true for OnRobot’s RG2-FT Gripper, the world’s first intelligent gripper. The touch-sensitive two-fingered hand can quickly and efficiently pick and package small, delicate products such as food or agriculture produce without squashing or breaking them.
OnRobot grippers are designed to seamlessly integrate with collaborative applications and are built for easy “plug-and-produce” automation. At Rosborg Food Holding, Denmark’s largest producer of herbs and mini plants, an OnRobot RG6 gripper seamlessly packs cut herbs. The automated packaging solution is so intuitive that staff without robot experience can easily switch the solution to packing other types of products by simply changing settings on the robotic arm’s touch screen. The RG6 robot gripper’s software is installed in the robotic arm similar to how an app is installed on a smartphone5.
These grippers can be attached to any robot, and end users can control the gripper using the software panel’s embedded programming. This is advantageous for both large businesses, as well as for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) seeking agility and cost-efficiency as their low-volume, high-mix production needs change.
Grippers Boost Machine Utilisation
Computer numerical control (CNC) machines are expensive, priced as high as US$1.1 million. Hence, manufacturers are constantly looking at ways to get the most out of these machines. A single gripper is often used in CNC machine tending tasks. This method means the machine is left idle for a long time, having huge cost implications for the business. Instead, manufacturers can use dual grippers to maximise production.
OnRobot’s RG2 or RG6 dual grippers boost machine utilisation. While one gripper removes a processed part from the machine, the second picks the next raw part to be loaded into the machine, reducing cycle time, improving efficiency and increasing output. Danish gear manufacturing company, Osvald Jensen cut its production cycle time by 12 seconds or almost half the time using OnRobot’s dual grippers6.
Advanced Intelligence in Modern Tools
The collaborative application determines the EOAT type, and in turn, the intelligent features in the EOAT arbitrate the automation quality.
For example, if a robot is tasked with picking up a plastic sheet, its grippers will be equipped with pneumatics or vacuum cups. For applications that need a two-finger gripper, the wise choice would be a gripper that is easy to install and programme, and also, cost-effective. However, if the product mix changes are frequent, a gripper with an adjustable stroke and gripping force would be best.
Advanced EOATs will be able to satisfy these disparate needs and adhere to the end-user’s long-term interests. Average intelligence in robot accessories is no longer sufficient—to create the agile, hyper-connected and collaborative environments envisioned by Industry 4.0, these accessories must have elevated intellect.
A New Era of Automation
The new direction in industrial automation is about adding intelligence to end-effectors so that the robot can become smarter. Adopting advanced EOATs with intelligent sensors and inbuilt software will help producers to be more agile, connected and collaborative. They will also open doors to new automation possibilities, bringing robotics to a broader audience, to new industries and to SMEs that would have in the past considered it out of reach. Southeast Asia has the potential to capture productivity gains worth US$216 billion to US$627 billion with the adoption of these Industry 4.0 technologies7.
The days of large, centralised productions are over, and automated processes are too costly to be rebuilt with every modification or design change. Today, businesses need flexible, highly adaptive automation solutions. Therefore, intelligent tools that make automation more collaborative, cost-efficient, scalable and connected should be prioritised. This new curated range of advanced EOATs is finally helping to deliver the promise of remote-controlled automation to industry players in the region.
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