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What Will the Robots Do Next?

June 10, 2024
Collaboration and modularity are becoming conventional, and automation technology developers are bringing forth functions that make the devices perform more efficiently and effectively.

The arrival earlier this year of a collaborative robot capable of handling up to 66 lbs. (30 kg) and achieving a reach of 51.2 in. (1,300 mm) – all in a footprint of less than 10 in. diam. (Ø 245 mm) – was a new highpoint in the rapid development of cobot technology over the past decade. Universal Robots’ UR30 raised the payload potential for material handling and palletizing, and perhaps more practically it expands the scope of automated machine tending.

“The higher payload and greater flexibility underpin a new era in automation,” according to UR president Kim Povlsen. “Industries around the world are embracing more agile manufacturing and modularity in production: part of achieving that modularity and agility is about mobility, and this cobot delivers that despite its payload.

“As industries evolve, the UR30 not only meets but anticipates shifting demands, enabling businesses to adapt and respond to changing needs effectively,” he added.

UR and other automation developers have pushed this evolution. Cobots have been a watershed for manufacturers’ understanding of automation. They have redefined role for robots by positioning the devices as reliable and safe partners with human workers, simple and quick to program, and conveniently mobile for repurposing to different tasks.

And because cobots have brought more manufacturing operations on board with automation, other developers have advanced automation technology in every direction, not just collaborative operations. Earlier this spring, ABB Robotics took the cue on upsizing automation devices with the IRB 7710 and IRB 7720. Together with the previously introduced IRB 5710-IRB 5720 and IRB 6710-IRB 6740, this series offers 46 different robot varieties for handling payloads between 70 and 620 kg. The new robots support applications in various industries, including EV, HEV, and traditional automotive production – from press automation, body-in-white, EV battery construction, and final assembly. Specifically, they are applicable in high-payload diecasting (e.g., gigacasting) and similar heavy-lifting requirements.

And similar to cobots’ controllability appeal, ABB’s OmniCore™ robot control platform allows the programmer to achieve path accuracy down to 0.6 mm, even with multiple robots running at high speeds of up to 1600 mm/s and moving payloads of up to 620 kg. ABB also offers customers cycle-time reductions of up to 25%.

Modularity and variability

“As businesses introduce new technologies and components to meet productivity and sustainability goals, we’ve engineered our modular large robot portfolio to enable them to select the best robots and variants to allow them to efficiently undertake their operations,” stated Marc Segura, president of ABB Robotics division.

At the smaller scale of collaborative robotics is Zimmer Group’s ZiMo flexible robotic cell, a mobile workstation consisting of a cobot, end effector, and mobile frame. It allows operators to position automation freely at various locations without the need for complex integration into existing systems. An intuitive set-up allows for operation without programming knowledge and its flexible configuration with quick adaptation works well for small-batch sizes.

Manufacturers are not simply adapting automation to their particular requirements. Some are introducing new production technologies thanks to the availability of automation – and this is another angle that robot developers have worked to define. Metal additive manufacturing is a production step that’s particularly attractive for machine shops, as well as metalcasters seeking to offer customers different materials or design complexity. KUKA Robotics – another originator of collaborative automation – is working with One-Off Robotics to pair robots in custom metal AM work cells to produce critical parts with an average deposition rate of 4 kg/hour for wire-arc additive manufacturing and up to 10 kg/hour for wire-laser AM.

That’s one of several specialty automation applications that KUKA will exhibit at IMTS 2024, including the Waybo CyberDrawers feeding system for turning centers and milling machines. Machine shops can program the system using a simple, internally designed interface that calculates nearly all the robot’s movements, so setting up for a new production process is quick and easy.

The end result

Robot arms are the first thing any manufacturer wants to evaluate, and programming functions often seal the deal. But making those arms work and carrying out those programmed commands is the job for end-of-arm tools. Recently, Zimmer Group showcased several new magnetic grippers for use in production of battery cells, as well as several premium pneumatic grippers. The company specializes in manufacturing grippers and end-of-arm tooling components for robotics and the automation industry, an increasingly dynamic area of development.

One EOAT developer that’s particularly focused on cobot systems is OnRobot, which recently introduced two grippers as cobot end-effectors for heavy-duty handling operations. The new 2FG14 doubles the payload and gripping force of OnRobot’s 2FG7 gripper while also providing 30% more total stroke. It is a lightweight parallel-finger gripper with a payload of 14 kg (30.8 lbs.) – effective, for example, in handling of heavy metal workpieces for automated grinding – with a new base design for work in places where workpieces are frequently exposed to oils or cutting fluids.

OnRobot’s new three-fingered 3FG25 gripper provides users with 25 kg (55.1 lbs.) of payload power in a compact, all electric, lightweight form. “As cobots grow more powerful, OnRobot customers are scaling up their collaborative applications,” stated CEO Enrico Iversen. “Building on the success of our existing, industry-proven gripper range, the new 3FG25 and 2FG14 grippers deliver unrivaled gripping and payload power while also providing customizability for heavy-duty applications, including harsh environments.”

The two new grippers are offered as a powerful, intelligent alternative to less adaptable, pneumatic systems. The developer claims that no other electric grippers in the 30-kg payload range offer an all-round plug and produce experience, including fingers with multiple configurations, flange adapters, cabling and comprehensive software that removes complexity of robot programming.

OnRobot is also taking a step into the cobot programming function by collaborating with Ellison Technologies on the new AutoPilot powered by D:PLOY – which simplifies the process of deploying and redeploying CNC machine tending applications. They assert that D:PLOY is the manufacturing industry’s first automated platform for building, running, monitoring, and redeploying collaborative applications. D:PLOY will cut deployment times and make it possible for deployment to take place on the factory floor – with zero programming and zero simulations required.

Customization invariably involves programming, which is another area of emerging development for industrial robots and cobots. Yaskawa Motoman is emphasizing the ease of use that its YMConnect software development kit (SDK) provides for manufacturers to define communication links from PC applications to its robots. YMConnect uses a cross-platform library to control and monitor a robot over Ethernet, allowing for integration of a custom PC application with the robot controller.

Available with a dynamic motion interface, YMConnect can generate motion on-the-fly. Kinematic conversions between pulse, joint angles, and Cartesian coordinates are easy to execute, and the GitHub repository helps to distribute the free dynamic library.

Common features that allow users to control how a robot interacts with its environment include: reading the configuration of axes, monitoring feedback position and torque, monitoring state of operations and errors, monitoring clear faults, and controlling and monitoring Inform jobs. Reading and writing controller variables (byte, integer, double, real, string and position), as well as reading unlimited I/O is facilitated. Saving, loading and deleting files can also be completed – with deletion supported only for Job files.

A decade ago many manufacturers accepted robotic installations for defined tasks – or as inevitable choices for work that is unsafe or too demanding of human labor. Today, the preponderance of developments in automation signals that robots (and cobots) are the agents for manufacturing customization, expansion, adaptation, and creativity.