CHICAGO — Automation is widely viewed as the solution to worsening labor and skills shortages in manufacturing, but adoption has been relatively slow, especially among small and midsize businesses, according to several exhibitors at Automate 2019 here this week. A common theme that has emerged in discussions is that robots need to be designed for greater ease of use. One example of a robotics provider addressing this challenge is Robotiq Inc., which announced two vacuum grippers and a sanding kit.
From 2018 to 2028, more than 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled, according to research by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. Collaborative robots, or cobots, are designed to augment existing workers and processes and are growing as a category within industrial automation.
Lévis, Quebec-based Robotiq‘s AirPick, EPick, and Robotiq Sanding Kit are intended to allow cobot users to focus on their applications rather than on extensive customization work, co-founder and CEO Sam Bouchard.
“Our strategy around these products is how they fit into the overall company strategy,” he told The Robot Report. “People are really interested in cobots, but the biggest bottleneck is the application complexity. When they get to the design phase, everybody gets stuck.”
Related content: The Robot Report February 2019 issue on cobots
Designing for plug and play
“Three to four years ago, we started with the idea of plug-and-play components,” Bouchard recalled. “One example was the camera we launched a few years ago. In choosing the optics, building the software and the interface with a robot — which was previously high-end systems integrator work — we made it easy to install. The goal was to streamline the whole process of design, integration, and operation, following the concept of lean robotics.”
“Where people waste a lot of time is doing custom work every time [they bring in a robot], waiting for answers and for stuff to be fabricated,” he said. “With our products, they meet with the factory and pick modules to configure from a few standardized components.”
Bouchard said that Robotiq developed the vacuum grippers in response to customer and integrator feedback: “We touch several thousands of projects every year, and they asked us about this. We had lots of data and requests from partners.”
“We’ve already added tools — grippers, the Force Copilot sensors, and cameras — to make end users’ lives easier,” Bouchard added. “While every application is different, the goal of the new vacuum grippers is to expand the toolbox.”
AirPick, EPick vacuum grippers broaden Robotiq’s grasp
Robotiq makes a variety of grippers, and AirPick and EPick are its first suction grippers. They can handle objects of varying shapes, sizes, materials, and weights, making them suitable for packaging, palletizing, pick-and-place, assembly, and machine-tending applications, said the company.
“Cobots can go from 0 to 10 kg [22 lb.], and our two vacuum grippers can cover the whole range,” said Bouchard. “EPick is electrically powered and doesn’t require external air, so it’s good for smaller payloads.”
“For higher payloads or porus surfaces, the AirPick is better,” he noted. “For both, the control is done from the robot. It’s the same user interface to pick and drop a part or detect if one has been lost.”
“Underneath these modules are four, two, and one-node configurations — the user can just unscrew them and install on different plates,” Bouchard said. “They can do it on their own with one custom mechanical part.”
How are Robotiq’s vacuum grippers different from the competition? “Our strength is in understanding the applications and the cobot,” Bouchard responded. “The big vacuum guys are not experts at cobots. We have the right mix of functionality and configurability.”
Software and sanding
“For the new vacuum grippers, software was mostly straightforward — it’s the same mechanical and electrical interfaces and the same code as our other grippers,” Bouchard said. “For the sanding kit, we worked with the UR e-Series built-in sensor. We did the path-generation and force-control algorithms to apply the right force, no matter how the tool is rotating or its angle.”
The Robotiq Sanding Kit is “the only hardware and software sanding solution for Universal Robots,” stated Robotiq. It’s the company’s first application-specific package, but probably not its last, said Bouchard.
“We’re not experts in sanding, so we partnered with Dynabrade, which already had a UR-compatible sander,” he said. Universal Robots A/S has specialized in cobots and worked closely with its ecosystem of partners.
“Universal Robots has been a pioneer in opening its development environment to component makers,” Bouchard said. “We were the first UR+ developer, which allows us to integrate all of our interfaces. UR has also matured on the business-process side, so our products were already certified before release.”
The recent departure of Universal Robots founder Esben Østergaard came as a surprise, said Bouchard. “I sent him a note to thank him for his part in creating this industry,” he said. “It’s impressive how they remained consistent with their vision. I look forward to seeing his next move.”
Robotics trends at Automate
The packaging of cobots with software and end effectors for specific applications is likely to continue, said Bouchard.
“We’re entering a new phase of market adoption,” he said. “We’ve gone from two or three years ago, where companies were trying cobots, to entering the mass market.”
“There’s the challenge of finding workers with application know-how, so companies that can get educated about automation sooner will have an advantage,” Bouchard said. “This requires more packaged solutions that are easier to set up for putting parts on a pallet or sanding an item.”
Robotiq will host live demonstrations of AirPick, EPick, and the Robotiq Sanding Kit, among other offerings, at Booth 7165 at Automate this week. What else is Bouchard looking forward to seeing?
“I’m intrigued by what Ready Robotics is presenting — a unified control platform for industrial and collaborative robots,” he said. “Because of uncertainty around application know-how, we’re investing in new products for ease of use.”