Love robotics? Fill out the form below to stay
abreast of the latest news, research, and business
analysis in key areas of the fast-changing
robotics industry
Subscribe to Robotics
Trends Insights

Sponsored Links

Advertise with Robotics Trends
[ view all ]
Industry and Manufacturing
Bookmark and Share
STORY TOOLBOX Print this story  |   Email to a friend  |   RSS feeds
New Uses for Industrial Robots
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Dec 04, 2007
More Industry and Manufacturing stories
Companies in the business of building robots for industry are exploiting advances in technology that make it possible for their products to work in smaller spaces, have greater tactile dexterity, be more modular on shop floors, and easier to program. The result… new opportunities for industrial robotics products.  Here is a survey of new uses for industrial robots being explored by three major industrial robotics manufacturers.

Motoman’s Dual-Arm Robot a New Option
Motoman manufactures industrial robots that weld, assemble, cut, and handle goods for manufacturers. It also offers related process controls, positioning systems, welding equipment, and operating software. Motoman was founded in 1989. The company, which produces more than 175 robot models and has more than 27,000 robots installed in North and South America, is a subsidiary of Yukawa Electric America, (a maker of control products, AC servo motors and drives, and inverters), which it turn is a unit of Yaskawa Electric Corporation of Japan, one of the world’s top manufacturers of industrial robots with nearly 180,000 installed worldwide.

The latest innovation from Motoman is the SDA10 dual-arm robot, which provides high-speed motion with human-like flexibility of movement. The SDA10 features 15 axes of motion, seven axes per arm, plus a single axis for base rotation. The SDA10 robot’s actuator-based design means that the motor, encoder, reducer and brake for each robot axes are combined in one small, lightweight package that is one-third smaller than a traditional AC servo motor drive. The advantages of this packaging include a slim arm profile, a lightweight robot body, and high wrist movement and inertia ratings.

Craig Jennings, CEO of Motoman, says, “Our newest innovation of the last year is a humanoid robot, for tasks like handling of flexible products, manipulations that require two hands in a very coordinated fashion and assembly. Historically such tasks have been restricted to humans. Not only is it an expansion for us, but we are creating a whole new market. These tasks historically have been farmed out to lower-cost labor countries.”

That makes the potential market quite large. “We think this is an application that has thousands and thousands of opportunities and something we are aggressively and actively pursuing.” Jennings says. The robot was unveiled at 2007 International Robot Exhibition held in Japan on Nov. 28, 2007.

Examples of how the SDA10 dual-arm robot can be applied include tasks requiring fine motor skills such as electromechanical assembly and wire harness assembly. Also, multi-process tasks that require several steps such as picking something up, applying glue, placing it on an assembly and then driving screws into it, are viable applications for Motoman’s new dual-arm robot.

Marketing the robot is a challenge of creating awareness of how it can be applied. “We have to do a lot of demonstrations,” Jennings says. “Customers are just waking up to it.”

Pricing for the dual-arm robot is essentially an additional $10,000 for the additional axis. So where two six-axes robots may cost $50,000 each, two seven-arm robots with a rotational waist may cost $110,000, in one compact package.

The major technical challenge faced by Motoman in developing the SDA10 robot was to develop 15 axes of motion in a very constricted space. “We had to invent a new line of actuators,” motion devices that combine a motor, drive and bearing into a small, compact package, Jennings says. The Motoman had to create a way to put the compact actuators in line to create arms. Finally, the company had to work on the software to make it practical for customers to guide the 15 axes of motion with simply keystrokes.

“The good news is, we have developed multi-robot control since 1994, so we had an incredible library of software available for coordinating multiple robots together,” Jennings says. “We applied that software to create a whole new range of motion control software for a multi-armed robot.”

Outside of a thrust into humanoid robots, Jennings sees an opportunity for Motoman to extend into drug discovery, clinical lab work, alternative energy production and aerospace, markets he plans to pursue in coming years. 

ABB Touts Lean Manufacturing, Modularity
ABB (formally know as called Asea Brown Boveri) provides power and automation technologies to a broad base of utility, industrial, and commercial customers. Power products include transmission and distribution components, as well as turnkey substation systems. ABB automation technologies are used to monitor and control equipment and processes in industrial plants and utilities. The company, which operates in approximately 100 countries worldwide, has divested a number of its businesses to focus on its two core operational areas: power technologies and automation technologies.

ABB restructured its operations into five divisions in 2006 - power products, power systems, automation products, process automation, and robotics. The company retains an important presence in many sectors.  For example, ABB, with robotics headquarters in Vasteras, Sweden, claims the largest installed base of industrial robots in the world, and has claimed that it equips and services three-quarters of all pulp and paper mills worldwide. ABB has indicated that, given its strong rebound in the past couple of years, it may begin to make acquisitions that fill gaps in its existing range of offerings.

Nicholas J. Hunt, manager of application and sales support for ABB’s Robotic Products Group in Auburn Hills, outlined what new uses ABB is pursuing for industrial robots. He said innovations result not only from new technology, but also from advances in software being applied to existing robots.

“We are very focused now on supporting lean manufacturing and modularity, where the robots and associated tooling are fixed in place on a geometric platform. So you can pick up the entire application and put it down somewhere else, without disturbing the geometry or spatial relationship between the tooling and robots,” Hunts says. “This can greatly reduce the time required for programming as well as cell installation.” The Chrysler Belvedere plant outside Chicago is using this approach.

ABB’s software allows programmers to build applications remotely from the computer, using integrated development environments familiar to users of Visual Basic and C# from Microsoft, reducing the time required to program the robot. “The conventional way of programming a robot, that is though a hand-held Teach Pendant connected to the robot controller, is becoming less and less prevalent” Hunt says. “And with our Robot Application Builder, even sophisticated operator GUI’s are now easily created offline.”

ABB’s Robot Studio product allows the application developer to program the robot’s motion in a virtual world. “As you program, you will see the robot move and interact with the other virtual components right on the PC display.  Once the application design is tested and finalized, the programmer simply transfers the application into the robot and be comfortable it will work,” Hunt says. “I call this concept ‘math to path,’ where the development tool generates programs within the virtual, or ‘math’ world, then up to the robot as actual real-world ‘path’ instructions.” Hunt explains that the challenge is to completely eliminate the gap between the virtual and real worlds; and with their Absolute Accuracy feature, the gap is narrowing.

Other recent innovations for ABB involve the development of force control techniques. These innovations surface in ABB’s FC Machining and FC Assembly products, enabling burrs or metal remnants to be taken off machine parts after they come out of molds. “The robot instinctively knows where the part is and maintains the right amount of force to remove the burr, speeding up and slowing down where necessary” Hunt says, noting that this operation used to take a week to program and now can be done in 20 minutes.

The drive to help U.S. manufacturers compete with low-cost offshore labor is a major driver of industrial robot innovation. “These ground-breaking technologies will make a real difference in our customers’ ability to compete with countries offering cheap labor,” Hunt says. “When tangible results show up on the balance sheet, you start getting the attention of corporate decision-makers and entrepreneurs. And our embracement of flexible manufacturing concepts will cause major shifts in the way manufacturing plants of all sizes view the role of robotics.”

KUKA Showing Service Robot Prototype
KUKA Robotics is the North American subsidiary of KUKA Roboter GmbH, one of the world’s largest robot manufacturers. KUKA built its first industrial robot in 1977 and now has 80,000 robots installed in the field using its PC-based controller. KUKA offers a range of advanced design robots, covering all common payload categories, from 3 kg to 1,000 kg.

This year KUKA demonstrated a robot that represents a transition to a more-service-oriented robot, based on evolution of technology that enables the robot to sense its human co-workers and react cautiously. “The big difference between an industrial robot and one that operates in your home, is how closely the robot operates with humans,” says Kevin Kozuscek, Director of Marketing for KUKA Robotics.

KUKA has recently developed a prototype service robot which has a 14 kilogram payload capacity, and is made with composite plastic, making it very light yet still with a power to weight ratio of one. “It’s designed to show that you can sit next to a robot and have the robot sense that you are there and yield if you bump into it,” Kozuscek says. KUKA is testing out different software and hardware applications for how to best utilize the service robot. “We expect robots to take new forms we have not even imagined yet,” he says.

As industrial robot manufacturers continue to innovate, Robotics Trends will be following the developments.

John P. Desmond is a Contributing Editor to Robotics Trends. He can be reached at john_desmond[at]king-content[dot]com.

Bookmark and Share
STORY TOOLBOX Print this story  |   Email to a friend  |   RSS feeds
Now you can follow Robotics Trends and
Robotics Trends Business Review on Facebook