MSD: What are some of the latest trends in robotics these days, specifically for packaging and pick and place applications?

John • QComp: Robots are being applied to many packaging areas that were once completely done by hand. One reason is that robot pricing has become more attractive than the increasing burden rates and quality issues of traditional manual production methods. Robot manufacturers have also improved vision integration with their robot controllers, providing faster response times and higher quality vision models. These improvements allow robots to visually inspect for quality while product is picked and placed into primary and secondary packaging. This level of automation provides repeatable, reliable, and faster inspections that far surpass human capabilities. The use of delta robots in particular is increasing, due to their higher speed capabilities and larger reach envelopes.

Eimei • Muscle: In the packaging field, almost all new applications require high-speed pick and place with vision-guided conveyor tracking. Such designs simplify overall mechanical design to suit product variation, eliminating pre-positioning mechanisms. Vision-guided pick and place also reduces overall costs and shortens production switchover time — allowing manufacturers to justify the use of robotics over inexpensive human labor. Finally, vision systems can check packaging and kitting during final inspection, adding additional return on investment.

In fact, increasingly available off-the-shelf motion/robot controllers with vision guidance are making custom robot arm manufacturing with a specific reach and configuration very practical. What's more, some integrated motors are designed specifically for robotic arm applications, parts feeding, and quick mechanical setup adjustments, such as part guide-width control.

Clay • ARI: Robots are now moving into primary packaging. In many cases, they have already picked off the relatively simple applications. Loading cartons into a case by using suction devices is one example. Exploitation is far from over in these applications, and given the need to reduce labor and eliminate human restriction of throughput, demand is rising for robots to pick and place fresh or raw products. In addition to labor concerns, there is an idea that the fewer human hands that touch our food, the better. Put these reasons together and the obvious solution is a robot. It doesn't sneeze, cough, or have hair. It is relentless at its task, which it never gets tired of doing. With the advent of higher-speed robots and innovative end-of-arm tooling, robots are the future of today's packaging needs.

MSD: Can you describe a recent project or installation?

John • QComp: We've designed and integrated several high-speed pick and glue applications where an ABB delta robot is used to pick a product lid, apply a bead of glue, and assemble the lid on the product at more than 100 cycles per minute. Lids are picked and placed on products that are continuously moving on a conveyor under the robot. What makes the design unique is a servo feed system, which allows higher speeds and improves the placement accuracy compared to older versions that we and others have implemented.

Eimei • Muscle: A new concept featuring some highly innovative motion technology was recently demonstrated at iREX 2011 in Tokyo this past November. This delta robot — designed for bricklaying — is formed with three of our robot-tailored motors and three pulleys and wires. It picks bricks from a pallet to construct fancy curved walls.

Clay • ARI: When employing robots in a production scenario with random product flow, the most common method used to locate the product is a vision system. However, items must be separated, which requires a spreading method to ensure no two items are viewed as one. Even though vision systems are relatively mature, they rely on light, contrast, and data transmission to the robot for instructions on where to pick. The place sequence is the simple and secondary task, but depends on an accurate pick cycle. Most robots perform a single pick cycle and a single place cycle. We thought: If only there was a way to create a single-file line of products to the robot, it wouldn't have to find the items — because they would be presented at the same place every time.

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We recently released such a design called the High Speed Singulator at Pack Expo Las Vegas. With just a 4 × 4-ft footprint, it organizes a random flow of products received at its input into a single stream at its output. The system eliminates the need for vision by feeding the items to a designated pickup point — so the robot merely needs to know the next item is in place and ready to be picked.

In addition to simple feeding, the integrated design can be used to setup pre-stacking, allowing the robot end effector to pickup multiple stacked items. Here, the lower-speed robot without vision can achieve a higher throughput at a lower rate of motion. In many cases, the ROI increases and the complexity and concerns go down.

MSD: What's the next step in the evolution of robotics for industrial applications?

John • QComp: The use of multi-arm robots in assembly applications is one area now creating an industry buzz. This type of application is very difficult to develop and the question remains: Are these robots flexible enough to replace multifunction humans possessing such great degrees of vision and dexterity?

In my opinion, the biggest market in the U.S., which is not going to go offshore, is food production and packaging. Robots are gaining ground in these applications. Some U.S. food producers are beginning to use robots in sanitary areas, but there needs to be much more participation by these manufacturers in the USDA approval process. It's difficult for integrators to leverage approval by inspectors when the producers hold all the cards. European producers have been using robots for years in areas and applications that USDA inspectors would never dream of allowing them into.

Robot manufacturers need to develop a cost-effective sanitary robot, and food producers need to spearhead approval requirements with the USDA. As an integrator, we can design sanitary frames, robot tooling, conveyors, and peripheral equipment to meet the sanitary standards outlined in the producers' equipment specifications, but the robot itself is a hurdle for many producers to gain USDA approval. Partnerships need to be developed to clear the way for robotics. Robots don't get colds, transfer germs, or leave the plant, which should lead to better products with less chance of cross contamination.

Eimei • Muscle: In packaging applications, robots capable of higher speeds and repeatability used to fit products into tighter boxes and containers will be of interest. With regard to handling meat and other fresh products, sanitation will be an important challenge. Intelligent peripheral devices, such as multiple grip hands that can change pitch for different pick and place applications, will be highly desirable as well.

Clay • ARI: The next step in robot evolution, specifically for food applications, is to make them suitable for use in washdown environments. Although there are some robots available with the ability to be washed down, they are few. With the advent of more applications and the demand that will follow innovations, robot manufacturers will need to meet the desire for USDA-accepted robots.

Snake locomotion inspires all-terrain robot design

Designing a robot that can handle all types of terrains, for use in search and rescue missions, is a tough task for engineers. The rugged robot must be flexible enough to cover uneven surfaces, yet not so big that movement is hindered in tight spaces. In the field, the machine must also climb slopes of varying inclines. Although existing robots can do many of these things, most require large amounts of energy and are prone to overheating. Georgia Tech researchers have designed a new robot by studying the locomotion of a certain type of flexible and efficient animal — the snake.

“By using their scales to control frictional properties, snakes are able to move large distances while exerting very little energy,” explains Hamid Marvi, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate. While studying and videotaping the movements of 20 different species at Zoo Atlanta, Marvi developed Scalybot 2, a robot that replicates the rectilinear locomotion of snakes. He unveiled the robot in January at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology annual meeting in Charleston, S.C.

“During rectilinear locomotion, a snake doesn't have to bend its body laterally to move,” says Marvi. “Snakes lift their ventral scales and pull themselves forward by sending a muscular traveling wave from head to tail. Rectilinear locomotion is very efficient and is especially useful for crawling within crevices, an invaluable benefit for search and rescue robots.”

Scalybot 2 can automatically change the angle of its scales when it encounters different terrains and slopes. This adjustment allows the robot to either fight friction or generate it. The two-link robot is controlled by a remote-control joystick and can move forward and backward using four motors.

Marvi's advisor is David Hu, an assistant professor in the Schools of Mechanical Engineering and Biology. Hu and his team are primarily focused on animal locomotion. They've explored questions such as how dogs and other animals shake water off their bodies and how mosquitoes fly through rainstorms. This isn't the first time Hu's lab has looked at snake locomotion, either. Last summer, the team developed Scalybot 1, a two-link climbing robot that replicates concertina locomotion. The push and pull, accordion style movement features alternating scale activity. For more information, visit gatech.edu.

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The European Robotics Forum, the largest robot industry gathering in the European Union, took place during March in Denmark. There, the European Commission announced Horizon 2020, a projected $107 billion research fund that includes robotics planned for 2014 to 2020. The Forum's broad theme was “towards new horizons,” as the roboticists begin preparations for Horizon 2020.

The burgeoning field of service robotics was a major focus. Designs with increasingly sophisticated sensors, navigation, and object recognition systems offer significant benefits for the elderly, disabled, and healthcare professions. The Adaptable Living Assistant, for example, is a mobile robot that provides monitoring, cognitive, and social assistance, while Kompai features speech and voice recognition to provide a navigable companion platform that will soon include health-monitoring devices. Several exhibitors presented rehabilitation robots, with one — ARMin — winning the prestigious euRobotics Technology Transfer prize.

Martin Hägele, head of the Department of Robot Systems at Fraunhofer IPA, led the industrial robotics track. “According to the International Federation of Robotics, approximately 150,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2011. I predict a future where humans and robots work alongside each other collaboratively and without fences,” he says.

Peter Schlaich, a senior expert at Robert Bosch Corporate Research, agrees. “The industrial market now demands robots able to work without the need for safety barriers, that don't need retooling, are capable of learning intuitively, and can be set up quickly, as our lines are now used for a matter of months,” says Schlaich.

Looking forward, Bernd Liepert, chief technical officer at KUKA AG, spoke about the upcoming European Robotics Week, to be held in November. “Last year, the event featured 350 robotics events across 19 countries and 80,000 people participated. Our vision is to achieve a higher quality of life for everyone through robotics.”

Industry expertise

Clay Cooper

Applied Robotics Inc. (ARI) appliedrobotics.com

Eimei Onaga

Muscle Robotics Inc. musclerobotics.com

John Schwan

QComp Technologies Inc. qcomptech.com

Robot gallery

Ball joint module enables flexible handling
Schunk Inc. has expanded its modular robotics range with the SPB Powerball. The movements of two axes are combined into one compact module that can be used to implement lightweight arms, service robots, and other handling applications with a modular structure. The two integrated servo axes can each achieve torques between 35 and 64 Nm. For more information, visit schunk.com.

Gearbox boosts positioning accuracy
The alpha TP+ High Torque gearbox from Wittenstein Inc. is suitable for use in delta robot systems because of its high precision and compact design. The gearbox combines low backlash and high torsional stiffness to create reliable positioning accuracy and comes in a washdown version. For more information, visit wittenstein-us.com.

Mini but mighty dc motor suits robotics
MICROMO announces the 3863-CR micro motor from FAULHABER, featuring ZHN48 magnet material to produce torque of 150 mNm at 8,000 rpm. It comes in 12, 18, 24, 36, and 48 V and can be equipped with a three-channel encoder and a range of precision gearheads. The 3863-CR’s power makes it suitable in robotic applications. For more information, visit micromo.com.

Smart camera guides pick-and-place robots
The FQ-M smart camera from Omron combines a camera, image processing, and communications into one compact package. With a processing speed of 5,000 pieces per minute, it also comes with embedded Ethernet and EtherCAT and an encoder. The camera is easily configured to guide pick-and-place robots using Sysmac Studio software. For more information, visit omron247.com.

Absolute encoders for industrial robots
With a length of less than 13 mm, the EBI 1135 from Heidenhain Corp. is one of the smallest rotary encoders suited for dynamic servomotors on industrial robots. The fast EnDat 2.2 serial interface is used to transmit high-resolution absolute position values, especially in applications with EMI noise potential, such as welding robots. For more information, visit heidenhain.us.

Silicone cables suit surgical robotics
Flexible and durable flat silicone cables from Cicoil Inc. are designed for use on surgical robotic systems that require absolute reliability. Silicone cable is naturally more flexible than round PVC or stiffer flat PTFE cables, which allows for a tighter bend radius, weight savings, noise reduction, and longer flex life. Cables are rated for Class 1 clean room use. For more information, visit cicoil.com.