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Get a Grip! Exploring Flexible and Collaborative Gripping Systems

By Anthony Leo | Soft Robotics | 10/31/2018
 

I have traveled to hundreds of plants across North America throughout my years in the automation industry, and there always seems to be two major challenges that make or break the possibility of automating: 1) How to pick a part and general part presentation, and 2) the infeed and outfeed of parts through an automated cell.

There are major advantages to having humans involved in this process since we can adapt to changes in the environment almost instantaneously. This is because humans have an extremely advanced vision system in our eyes and the most complex end effector in our hands. Meaning, our hands can adapt to different sizes and shapes, as well as different textures and weights. Humans can be extremely valuable in environments where major versatility is required.

With the difficulty of finding and keeping labor, companies would rather pull humans off the pick and pack-type tasks and have them do more value-added jobs. What if there was a more flexible gripper that could adapt to variation like a human could? That is where flexible and collaborative gripping systems come in.

With traditional gripping technologies, such as vacuum or pneumatic grippers, adapting to wide variation is fairly impossible, thus the human labor would be hard to take out from these processes. At Soft Robotics, we use a material science approach to solve the decade's old problem of how to grip variable and/or delicate products without causing damage.

The secret sauce is in the proprietary material the fingers are made of, as well as the controls, so the fingers can expand and contract into the tens of millions of cycles without the need of preventative maintenance or replacement. This allows the fingers to curl like human fingers and adaptively envelop anything within the profile window of the “hand.”

This methodology greatly simplifies the math that is normally required to develop robot gripping systems. Since the user controls the pressure being pumped into the fingers, as well as the opening amount, it allows for a wide variety of potential products a single gripper may be able to pick up. This would be key for low volume, high mix applications where the products could simply be changing outer diameters, for example. Traditional pneumatic grippers would struggle to adapt to these changes.

One customer who switched to the Soft Robotics gripping systems is Micron Products, a contract manufacturer that produces billions of parts a year for the defense, medical device and aerospace industries. In Micron’s world, you win business by offering customers low unit prices, which requires a fair amount of automation and incentives.

In this application, Micron uses Soft Robotics’ flexible grippers to pick and place small plastic fasteners into shipping crates. Prior to the implementation of the robots, the injection molding machine pushed out pieces at high speed onto a conveyor line, and six workers scoop up a whole line of pieces and put them in boxes for shipping. The pieces produced are one of the components used in constructing automotive seats. The fasteners go inside the seats and help hold the internal wiring of the seat together. According to Micron’s Vice President of Business Development, Drew Santin, this was the worst job in the plant, due to the furious pace that the workers had to maintain. Also, in their quoting process, they had underestimated the piece cost, making it necessary to automate to increase profitability.

Micron utilized a spider-style robot with the Soft Robotics gripper and the ROI was dramatic, since it allowed six people to move to other, more important tasks. Their annual salary was roughly one quarter of a million dollars. While occasionally labor is needed on the pack line, it is ten percent of what it used to be. Furthermore, the cell can now operate at a faster speed, as it does not need to slow down to accommodate human labor. (See video here.)

The full robotic cell cost $140,000, which, for Micron, represented a conservatively calculated payback period of eight months. This financial calculation did not include soft benefits like employee satisfaction, the ability to redeploy qualified workers (who are increasingly difficult to hire) and almost no pack defects.

For many integrators, machine builders and end user customers, products like the Soft Robotics gripper system are becoming a critical tool, allowing them to automate projects that were previously thought of as non-automatable due to difficulties with gripping the object. This technology has unlocked new markets for them, such as e-commerce and the food industry, which have been traditionally difficult to automate due to differences in the product shape, or potential damage to the products.

Anthony Leo specializes in sales and distribution of emerging disruptive automation technologies. In other words, he likes to solve problems in ways people haven't yet thought about. In addition to Soft Robotics, which specializes in adaptive gripping technology, Anthony spent years growing the collaborative robotics market segment. He also spent time with a Tier 1 automotive supplier, and on military R&D projects. Contact him at aleo@softroboticsinc.com or 248-550-0008 to discuss your product handling challenges.

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