Robotics are picking up the pace

06 June 2023

Steve Sands considers why developments in robotics are gathering pace and highlights some of the most recent advances.

The accelerating pace of innovation is a key topic for debate in the engineering automation sector. Changes driven by global events are apparent in many businesses – manifesting as labour shortages, rising energy costs or the need for higher flexibility and productivity. These disruptors are creating increasing opportunities for automation and robotics.  

Amazon, for example, is now using workcells that pick and place individual random packages using AI and vision to optimise performance. Mobile pallet-lifting robots incorporating the latest sensors and autonomous controls work safely alongside human operators. Meanwhile, Tesla has revealed its Optimus humanoid robot, literally making big strides in a short space of time. Such new entrants into the robotic sector will further drive the pace of change. 

Handling innovations
Mechanical grippers – usually with two or three-fingers that move in either a parallel or angled motion – are one example. Used in pick and place applications, these grippers mechanically squeeze or engage with the profile of the component to be moved. Design reviews have removed material, not only reducing cost but also reducing moving mass.  Higher technology grippers are also offering more flexible control over position and force using fieldbus protocols. Festo has demonstrated several solutions for flexible grippers inspired by nature that wrap around the product more like human hands and fingers.  These range from flexible gripper fingers that mount onto standard mechanical grippers or wholly soft devices more akin to a gecko’s tongue or octopus’s tentacle. 

LifeTech (or Life Sciences), has been one of the fastest changing robotic sectors. In part, this has been due to the Covid pandemic rapidly accelerating the use of highly automated processes in drug discovery. Festo has supplied cartesian-based robot solutions for many of these applications. The scale can vary from a complete system no larger than a sheet of A4 size paper to other industry applications with gantries spanning more than 30m2.  

Software to make cartesian and gantry system design fast and error-free has enabled swift turnaround times. A design and selection package called Handling Guide Online [HGO] allows us to input the application requirements in the customers’ language, such as the stroke lengths, mass to be moved, etc. The HGO then looks for all possible solutions based upon feed forces, inertia and the mechanical bearing specifications and then prioritises them. Price may be the most critical factor – but so too can power requirements or safety factors for bearing overload.  

Models created within the HGO contain not only the simulations but also the mechanical design and bill of materials. The 3D CAD drawing is created in numerous formats simultaneously and even includes documentation for electrical wiring and programming I/O allocations. This data transfers seamlessly into the preferred documentation software such as EPLAN. Kinematic models can be picked up within higher-level simulation packages, enabling the simulation of complete stations. So, the operating (PLC) program can be pre-written and virtually commissioned before any metal is cut or assembled.

Looking forward
The whole process of industrial automation is changing. Increased access to easy to use, free of charge software, means customers can specify many handling and automation systems on their own. Where additional support is required, remote consultation has become the norm and is frequently provided faster than site visits allowed.  These fast, online services set the trend for accelerated robot design and delivery in the future.

Steve Sands is Head of Product Management at Festo GB.

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