CHICAGO — At Automate 2019 here this week, Epson Robots announced three different products designed to make industrial automation easier to use. The company said that its VT6L six-axis robot, IntelliFlex parts-feeding system, and four new models in the LS SCARA series are intended to bring precision and affordability to robotics users of all sizes.
Epson Robots, which is part of Epson Group led by Japan-based Seiko Epson Corp., claims an installed base of more than 85,000 robots worldwide. Building on a 35-year heritage, the company offers six-axis, Cartesian, and SCARA robots are based on a common set of PC controls. They are used in assembly and materials handling for applications such as aerospace, automotive, electronics, food processing, medical device, and electronics. Epson is displaying its products at Automate at Booth 7566 in the McCormick Convention Center.
VT6L an entry-level robot
The new VT6L is an “all in one” six-axis robot arm that is compact, easy to install, and more affordable than the competition, according to Epson Robots. The VT6L has a 900mm (35.4 in.) reach and a payload capacity of 6kg (13.2 lb.).
“About two years ago, we introduced the T3 all-in-one, four-axis SCARA robot for entry-level applications,” said Rick Brookshire, group product manager at Epson Robots. “We were going against the linear slide market, where systems integrators typically add the slides.”
“‘All in one’ means that we put the controller inside the robot base and made it simpler to integrate,” he told The Robot Report. “Our all-in-one family a relatively new concept, based on reducing space requirements and the cost of components.”
“The T3 took off faster than we expected, and we immediately started work on a T6 SCARA robot with a bigger payload capacity,” Brookshire said. “We then began working on a six-axis robot, so the VT6L is a distant cousin of the T3.”
“We used a lot of the same technology across robots — including our own motors and encoders — to keep the costs down,” he said. “Along with the Epson RC+ simulation software, we want to lead in ease of use.”
“Epson is well-known for reliable products,” Brookshire said. “For us to come out with something on the low end is a surprise.”
“The VT6L is made for relatively simple assembly tasks — such as loading or unloading machine tools, injection molding — where you don’t need tremendous precision or speed,” Brookshire said. “We learned about these modest but widespread requirements while working on the T series.”
“We made the end of the arm hollow for end-of-arm tooling. There’s space for wires or pneumatic tubes,” he explained. “Normally, you need a big loop so that when the arm twists around, it doesn’t get caught. We can now connect a flange on the end of the arm and then go straight out to tooling.”
“In addition, no battery is required for the encoder,” said Brookshire. “With most robots, you have encoders that track positions of motors and use batteries to save the location. They have to be changed every one to three years. We came up with this proprietary technology for our encoders to reduce downtime and TCO [total cost of ownership]. ”
The robot works with the Epson Vision Guide product, which is built to locate items for the VT6L to pick up.
“The interface is built into the Epson RC+ environment, so that developers can focus on the task at hand,” Brookshire said. “We’ve already heard positive feedback from some systems integrators, and we want to get these features into all our robots.”
Also noteworthy is the price tag for the VT6L, which Epson Robotics has announced at $13,900.
“That’s very low for a six-axis robot, but a lot of simple applications are using robots that are way overqualified,” said Brookshire. “The T3 starts at under $7,500, allowing SMEs [small and midsize enterprises] to put automation in their factories and allowing us to expand.”
IntelliFlex feeder uses software to speed singulation
The IntelliFlex parts-feeding system can eliminate retooling for mechanically separating high-mix, low-volume parts and uses a point-and-click interface, said Epson.
“In any assembly operation, you need a way to feed parts to a robot, such as trays, gravity feeders, and bowl feeders,” Brookshire noted. “To get one part at a time, bowl feeders vibrate the part to the top. But if you change the part, you need to change the bowl feeder and find an expert to change its programming.”
“Flexible feeding uses a camera, then a conveyor or vibration to spread out parts for singulation,” he added. “The vision system can then find individual parts to pick. But someone still has to write the software to put it all together.”
Epson is using a feeder from Asyril with its IntelliFlex system, which includes a flex feeder, a vision system, and software so that the robot can refine its sortation automatically, said Brookshire.
“IntelliFlex’s point-and-click interface includes features such as auto-tuning for, say, the different vibration of plastic versus metal parts,” he said. “It usually takes a human to tune the feeder, test it, and change parameters. This could involve writing hundreds of lines of code.”
“Normally, tuning works with the user putting in some parameters, like frequency, amplitude, and direction,” Brookshire said. “After putting parts in, the user would have to play with these numbers to move parts in a certain direction or apart far enough.”
“With autotune, the user clicks a button and starts a tuning wizard,” said Brookshire. “Instead of having to write the code, it auto-generates it, except for two sections where it asks where to place the parts or how many positions.”
“The vision system takes pictures and watches parameters. Epson Vision Guide would see if parts are bunched in a corner and automatically tell the feeder to spread them out, without human instruction,” he said. “The Asyril feeder can even control the direction of parts, rather than just shaking them and hoping for singulation.”
“The guys in my department couldn’t do this before, but they can now do this in under an hour,” he remarked. “How much time could be saved?”
How did the partnership with Asyril arise? “Epson is part of Seiko Epson Group, which got its beginnings in automation for making watches,” Brookshire responded. “Meanwhile, Asyril’s first customers were watchmakers in Switzerland familiar with dealing with tiny, high-precision parts. It was a natural pairing.”
“With IntelliFlex, iterative tuning happens very quickly,” he said. “We have features coming for if you want the parts to be on one side of a tray or another to be in fastest path for a robot, the feeder can mover parts directionally. We’re recording these motions and figuring out the best locations to pick from. This could reduce cycle times by 5% to 10%.”
Epson adds robots to L5 SCARA lineup
Epson Robots has added four models to its LS series of SCARA robots: LS3-B, LS6-B, LS10-B, LS20-B. They are named by their payloads in kilograms.
“We already have the No. 1 SCARA lineup in the world, from the T series at the low end to the G series at the high end,” Brookshire said. “There were already 3, 6, and 20kg payloads, and we’ve added the 10-B. We also have multiple sizes in millimeters for each, and you can get a specialized model for clean rooms.”
“Like with the T series, we built our own motors and encoders for the LS-B,” he said. “By doing that, we improved the speed by about 5%.”
“With SCARA robots, there’s a whipping action because of the shoulder motor and elbow joint. You can get faster motion if you use both motors at the same time,” said Brookshire. “Just keeping the distance short doesn’t necessarily work. We can figure out an optimal position on a platform better than a human can.”
“For the maximum speed and the smoothest motion, you need to get rid of extraneous vibrations, but first, you must measure it,” noted Brookshire. “Our gyro inside the arm can feed back into servo loop. This provides optimal stopping, so the robot don’t overshoot or ring, which is movement at end of the arm.”
“Like noise cancellation, our next-generation gyro hardware and software can detect motion and balance it out for the robot to more efficiently come to a stop,” he said.
Other changes, Brookshire said, include an Ethernet cable in the arm, so that uses can more easily connect a camera on the nose of the robot without many exterior cables. This line also has battery-less technology, he said.
“The VT6L and IntelliFlex may be more exciting, but the LS-B shows Epson’s commitment to continuously improving its products,” said Brookshire. “There are a few things that guide the time frames. Epson has hundreds of engineers in R&D groups all over the world. For example, an R&D group recently released force guidance, which was then integrated into our robots.”
Software and demand
Continuous feedback has helped Epson improve its products, said Brookshire
“RC+ was developed here in the U.S.,” he said. “In Japan, they build manipulators, and here we build the software. Much of our team came from systems integrators; they know how to build robots and tools.”
“We have to think like our users,” Brookshire said. “Sure, there’s the end factory, but really, it’s the people who are trying to get the tools to do what they want them to do. If we get a lot of calls about a feature, then we can build a wizard for it. We also get regular feedback from customers and our support teams on how to make things easier.”
He cited the example of software for IntelliFeeder. The robot needed to reach into a box to pick batteries, but some of them would be touching or less than a quarter-inch apart. The mechanical gripper would bump into some of those parts, changing the configuration.
“We put in new feature: ‘Yes, find the battery, and make sure you have enough space to make sure you won’t hit any other parts,’” said Brookshire. “By attaching a visual object to the gripper definition, the user saves a ton of time and angst.”
“The combination of Epson’s RC+ software, Vision Guide, and the flexible feeder can reduce the time of deployment from from weeks to days,” he said.