With collaborative robots proliferating, we wanted to know who’s using these robots and what tasks they’re doing. Design News caught up with Walter Vahey, executive vice-president at Teradyne, a company that helps manufacturers gear up their automation. Vahey sees a real change in the companies that are deploying robotics. For years robots were tools only for the largest manufacturers. They required expensive care and feeding in the form of integrators and programming. Now, collaborative robots require configuration rather than programming, and they can be quickly switched from task to task.
Vahey talked about robot companies such as Universal Robots (UR) which produces robot arms, and MiR, a company that produces collaborative mobile robots. He explained how they’re putting robotics in the hands of smaller manufacturers that previously could not afford advanced automation. The difference is that these robots are less expensive, they can be set up for production without programming, and they can be quickly reconfigured to change tasks.
We asked Vahey what’s different about collaborative robots and what he’s seeing in robot adoption among smaller manufacturers.
Design News: Tell us about the new robots and how they’re getting deployed.
Walter Vahey: Companies such as Universal Robots and MiR are pioneering the robot space. They’re bringing automation to a broad class of users and democratizing automation. For small companies, the task at hand is to figure out how to fulfill their orders. It’s particularly challenging to manufacturers. In a tight labor market, manufacturers are facing more competition, growing demand, and higher expectations in quality.
Manufacturer can plug UR or MiR robots in very quickly. Everything is easy, from the specs up front to ordering to quickly arranging and training the robot. There’s no programming, and the robots have the flexibility to do a variety of applications. Every customer is dealing with labor challenges, so now they’re deploying collaborative robots to fulfill demand with high quality.
The whole paradigm has shifted now that you have a broader range of robot applications. You can easily and quickly bring in automation, plug it in ,and get product moving in hours or days rather than months. That’s what’s driving the growth at UR and MiR.
The Issue of Change Management
Design News: Is change management a hurdle?. Does the robot cause workforce disruption?
Walter Vahey: We really haven’t seen that as an issue. The overwhelming need to improve and fulfill demand at a higher quality level helps the manufacturers deploy. It outweighs other challenges. We help with the deployment, and the manufacturers are making the change easily.
We grew up as a supplier of electronic test equipment. Since 2015, we’ve entered the industrial automation market with a focus on the emerging collaborative robot space. We see that as a way to change the equation for manufacturers, making it faster and easier to deploy automation.
Design News: What about return on investment? Robotics can be a considerable investment for a small company/
Walter Vahey: The customers today are looking for relatively short ROI, and we’re seeing it from 6 months to a year. That’s a no brainer for manufacturers. They’re ready to jump in.
We work hard to make deployment less of an issue. We have an application builder, and we use it to prepare for deployment. The new user may have a pick-and-place operation. They choose the gripper, and we guide them to partners who make it easy to deploy.
The application builder helps the customer pick the gripper. The whole object is to get the customer deployed rapidly so the automation doesn’t sit. With MiR, the robot comes in, and we find an easy application for the mobile device. We take the robot around the plant and map it. We’ve work to guide customers through an application quickly and make the robot productive as soon as possible.
There are hundreds of partners that work with UR and MiR, providing grippers and end effectors. We have a system that customers can plug into. Customer can look at grippers from a wide range of companies. We’re not working just on the robot deployment. We work to get the whole system deployed so they can quickly get the ROI.
What Tasks Are the Robots Taking On?
Design News: Who in the plant is using the robots, and what tasks are involved?
Walter Vahey: There is a range of users. To be effective at training a robot and configuring it, the people best suited for it are the ones most aware of the task. To get the robot to be effective you have to know the task. By and large, the person who has been doing that task is best suited to train the robot. That person can then train other robots. Nobody’s better suited to do it than the people who know what needs to be done.
The tasks are broad set of applications. We automate virtually any task and any material movement. It’s not quite that simple, but it’s close. With UR, we’re doing machine learning, grinding, packing, pick-and-place, repetitive tasks, welding. It’s a very broad set of applications. In materials it’s also very broad. Parts going from a warehouse to a work cell, and then from the work cell to another work cell, up to a 1000-kilo payload. We’re moving robots into warehousing and logistics space, even large pieces of metal. The robots are well suited for long runs of pallets of materials.
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.
Scientists have a growing interest in the design of soft robots that are safer and more nimble than their rigid counterparts.
One area in which they’ve been challenged in the development of these robots is at the smaller scale, such as in the millimeter range, because of the complexity of fabricating such fine parts at this size.
Now a team of researchers from Singapore and China have combined efforts to develop a 3D-printing process using digital light projection (DLP) to develop pneumatic actuators for soft robots ranging in size from 2 millimeters to 15 millimeters, with a feature size of 150-350 micrometers, they said.
The method paves the way for easier fabrication of tiny soft robots well-suited for navigation in confined areas as well as the manipulation of small objects, researchers said. These robots could find use in various applications, from medical technology to jet maintenance.
Specifically, the scientists--from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), and Zhejiang University (ZJU)—have presented a generic process flow for guiding DLP 3D printing of these miniature pneumatic actuators.
The method offers an alternative to the molding and soft-lithography methods that are typically used and require great delicacy, thus are more complex, said Associate Professor Qi (Kevin) Ge from SUSTech, the lead researcher of the research project.
"To ensure reliable printing fidelity and mechanical performance in the printed products, we introduced a new paradigm for systematic and efficient tailoring of the material formulation and key processing parameters,” he said in a press statement.
DLP 3D printing is a process in which photo-absorbers are commonly added into polymer solutions to enhance printing resolutions in both horizontal and vertical directions. However, if the dose of those absorbers is too high, it can lead to rapid degradation in the material's elasticity, an aspect that’s critical for soft robots to sustain large deformations, researchers said.
To achieve their results and not sacrifice any durability in potential soft robots fabricated using the process, researchers made a number of informed decisions, said Yuan-Fang Zhang, a researchers from SUTD who worked on the project.
First the team selected a photo-absorber with good absorbance at the wavelength of the projected UV light and then conducted mechanical performance tests to determine the appropriate material formulation, he said.
“Next, we characterized the curing depth and XY fidelity to identify the suitable combination of exposure time and sliced layer thickness," Zhang said in a press statement.
This process flow enabled researchers to develop a multimaterial 3D-printing system to fabricate a variety of miniature and structurally diverse soft pneumatic robotic actuators, researchers said.
Moreover, the method should be compatible with commercial stereolithography (SLA) or DLP 3D printers without needing to make any hardware modifications, Ge said in a press statement.
Researchers published a paper on their report in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies.
To demonstrate the usefulness of their process, the team devised a soft robot as a proof-of-concept—a debris remover comprised of a continuum manipulator and a 3D-printed miniature soft pneumatic gripper, they said. The robot can navigate through a confined space as well as collect small objects in places that humans might have a difficult time reaching, researchers said.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.