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Collaborative Robots: New Kids on Automation Block

By Kristen Golembiewski
Assistant Editor

 
In 2010, the Robotics Industries Association (RIA) estimated that only about 10% of companies that could benefit from robotics equipment were using it. Costs were prohibitive, programming was difficult, and many tasks weren’t automatable—so why bother?
 
But several major robot makers are changing all of that. ABB, Comau, FANUC and KUKA Industrial Robotics debuted their contributions to this new generation of automation in late 2014 and 2015. ABB sees its YuMu robot, introduced in 2015, as a solution to the shortage of qualified workers in smart manufacturing. With its compact design, the cobot can easily take over a workstation designed f
 
These new robots are relatively inexpensive, easy to program, and capable of automating dangerous, dull or dirty tasks humans don’t want to do. They can be operated without caging or other safety barriers, saving the trouble of rerouting the factory floor. Some even look human, with expressive faces and humanoid body types, right down to human-like finger grippers.
 
 

Go big or go home


FANUC, which is headquartered in Yamanashi Prefecture in Japan, debuted its contribution to the collaborative arena, the CR-35iA, in June. CR stands for collaborative robot. It has a 35 kg payload—the industry’s highest, according to FANUC.
“Cobots,” as the new robots are often called, are coming in response to customer needs.
 
“FANUC always has an eye on the new markets, and while the ‘collaborative’ name is very appealing to customers, we initially found that a lot of the units that were coming out [from other companies] weren’t really all that safe,” said Rick Maxwell, director of engineering, FANUC Robotics. He is located at FANUC’s headquarters for North and South America in Rochester Hills, MI.
 
“We wanted to enter the market with a product that had a usable payload and reach and differentiate ourselves, so we went big,” he adds. In addition to the high payload, the robot’s 1813-mm reach is currently unrivaled in the market.
 
Though the robot is green, its “yellow inside,” FANUC has said, meaning that it’s just like any other FANUC robot in terms of programming and software. The CR-35iA can be equipped with FANUC’s iRVision visual detection system, allowing the robot to locate workpieces regardless of size, shape, or position. Using the vision sensor, the 35-CRiA can even sort objects according to color, making for more efficient picking and tracking.
 
The cobot can also be equipped with a 3D Area Sensor, which will create a 3D map of the machine’s surroundings. This allows for palletizing and de-palletizing, including objects of different sizes, bin picking loose, random parts, and sorting, placing and loading. This year, FANUC plans to introduce a guide-to-teach option, in which an operator can physically move the robot through its task, and the robot will memorize the movements.
 

Ensuring safety, and looking good doing it


The color of the CR-35iA isn’t just for looks – it’s a safety feature, too. Bright green can signal a warning. And the “skin” is rubber, which will cushion the blow should the cobot bump into a human. As Maxwell explains, with industrial robots, there’s a lot of training involved to acclimate factory floor workers to their new colleagues, especially with regard to how and when to approach a cobot. The green of the 35-CRiA differentiates it from other robots and alerts workers that it is collaborative.
 
“With any industrial robot, you don’t want to approach it unless you know it’s safe,” Maxwell said.In addition to a human-like body and face, Comau's Amico robot features two Schunk SDH2 grippers and a multi-articulated gripping system with three fingers, allowing it to grab a wide range of objects
 
The 35-CRiA’s color is appealing. But going fenceless and avoiding rerouting factory flow to accommodate barriers are features that make the cobot even more attractive.
 
“Customers are really seeing an advantage in the fenceless technology,” Maxwell said.
 
Safety is a top concern for FANUC and other makers of collaborative robots. Despite the CR-35iA’s 7-axis arm, the company said the cobot has no pinch points, making it virtually harmless.
 
“We’ve gone to great lengths to avoid pinch points on the robot itself,” Maxwell said. “It’s very comprehensive in being safe around people.”
 
A major safety concern with a robot the size of the CR-35iA is getting trapped between it and a wall, or another obstacle. Using FANUC’s dual-channel force-sensing technology, the robot is designed to stop gently upon impact, avoiding injury, and comes with a push-to-escape function.
 
“Let’s say the 35-CRiA is stacking boxes and you get your hand stuck between the box it’s setting down and the stack it’s already made,” Maxwell explains. “With the push-to-escape function, you can push on the robot and the robot will move away from you in the direction that you push it. That way, you can get out of the obstruction and re-start the robot right from where it left off.”
 
Maxwell emphasizes that collisions between the CR-35iA and humans are rare, but if they do happen the cobot doesn’t miss a beat in getting back to its task. If the robot senses a force using its integrated force-sensing technology, it will stop immediately. An operator has several options for restarting, all lightning fast. In one scenario, after a 100 millisecond delay, the cobot will resume its action when it senses the force has been removed. It can also be re-started through pushbuttons on the robot arm itself.
 

Automation for you and me


ABB Robotics Inc., part of the Zurich, Switzerland-based ABB Group, also threw its hat into the collaborative ring in 2015 with a dual-arm tabletop cobot the firm calls YuMi, for “you and me.”
 
ABB began developing YuMi in 2006, at the beginning of the smartphone revolution. The choice to enter the market in 2015 was strategic. As the company explains, demand for smartphones and other small consumer electronics has skyrocketed, while product lifecycle has decreased. At the same time, the demand for more rewarding jobs, higher pay and increased quality of life for workers has manufacturers facing a dilemma: how to keep up with demand while facing a shortage of workers. ABB is happy to provide a solution.The 35-CRiA's push-to-escape function allows an operator to safely work with the cobot on tasks like palletizing without being trapped.
 
“Manufacturers are saying, ‘We have a problem. It’s not that we don’t want people to do this application; It’s that they don’t want to do this application.’ Automation can improve the lifestyle for everyone and provide an economic solution as well,” said Phil Crowther, Small Robots Product Manager, ABB Robotics Inc.
 
While there’s concern that robots will displace human workers in droves, Crowther and other collaborative robot experts say it doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening. In reality, collaborative robots like YuMi can take on dull, repetitive tasks – packaging, assembling, palletizing—allowing people to take on tasks that require higher cognitive skills. And the need for those kinds of workers is, indeed, growing.
 

New programming, new opportunities


Collaborative robots are also extending automation to tasks previously thought of as off the table for discussion because of the high level of flexibility required. Crowther highlights flexibility as a major benefit of YuMi.
 
“Humans are amazing in how they can adapt to change,” he said. “You can ‘reprogram’ a human extremely fast. Robots generally don’t have that same flexibility and, to be honest, it would still be very hard if you’re changing a product every few minutes, or every few seconds.”
 
YuMi’s flexibility makes it ideal for small electronic assembly. Capable of repeating actions within 0.02 mm accuracy and moving at a maximum speed of 1500 mm/sec, YuMi can handle a 500 g payload and operate alongside a human worker without the need for caging. As part of its “inherently safe design,” the arms feature a lightweight magnesium skeleton covered with a floating plastic casing wrapped in soft padding, minimizing impact should a collision occur. Pinch points have been eliminated or minimized, and because the robot weighs only 38 kg and takes up roughly the same space as a human, it can fit right in to a human work station with minimal adjustments.
 
YuMi is also opening up possibilities for automation in the assembly of watches, toys and automotive components, and applications are only going to grow. In early 2015, ABB bought Gomtec GmbH, a developer of mechatronic systems based near Munich, Germany. ABB has hinted at its intention to expand the YuMi line to include a range of higher payload robots, which will likely rely on Gomtec technologies. Gomtec technologies combine mechanical, electrical, telecommunications, control and computer engineering. ABB showed a preview of a new, one-armed tabletop robot nicknamed Next YuMi at IREX 2015 in Ariake, Japan. ABB expects to bring it to market by the middle of this year.
 

So easy, a kid could do it


Programming any robot is difficult, but programming a robot that may need to change applications quickly while staying easy to operate can seem impossible to somebody who’s not an engineer or trained in a particular robot language.
 
But YuMi’s programming is so versatile and easy to use that even Crowther’s daughter had no trouble using it.
 
“I showed my 8-year-old daughter the robot for the first time, and she went, ‘Hmm, is that a robot?’ She was a bit apprehensive at first, but it’s quite friendly – it didn’t take her long before she was happy to touch the robot and interact with it,” he said. “She was programming it with the tablet within minutes. That’s when you know you’ve got ease of use right.”
 
YuMi can be programmed through offline programming tools like any other ABB robot. It’s also compatible with ABB’s lead-through app, which gives the operator the ability to control the robot on any standard tablet. A guide-to-teach option is also available, allowing the operator to move YuMi through the motions it will be performing, while cameras in the robot’s grippers allow it to recognize the parts it needs and the positions they need to be in.
 

No job too small


Keeping up with global competition is a challenge for any manufacturer, especially small and medium enterprises that have smaller budgets than their larger competitors for investing in automation. It’s a problem that Universal Robots (Odense, Denmark) seeks to solve with its line of lightweight, easy-to-deploy robotic arms.Universal Robots' UR series of tabletop cobots can help smaller manufacturers automate and stay competitive.
 
Three college buddies started the firm in 2005 with a declared goal to “make robot technology accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises by launching a lightweight robot that is easy to install and program,” according to company materials. After an investment from the Danish Growth Fund, UR introduced its UR5 robot in 2009.
 
With a maximum reach of 850 mm and a maximum payload of 5 kg, the UR5 allows for the automation of pick and place, assembly, machine tending, and other repetitive tasks. The company also offers a slightly smaller model, the UR3, with a maximum reach of 500 mm and payload of 3 kg, ideal for companies that are short on space. The largest model, the UR10, can automate tasks up to 10 kg, with a reach radius of 1300 mm.
 
All robots feature six axes of rotation, easy programming, and a typical installation time of half a day or less. UR also boasts an average ROI of six months.
 
Rethink Robotics (Boston, MA), maker of the Baxter and Sawyer robots, takes a similar approach in helping small and medium manufacturers stay ahead of the competition.
 
“The challenges have historically been, manufacturers want efficiency and productivity—and that worked when they were making 10 million of one thing,” said Jim Lawton, Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Rethink Robotics. “But if I’m a small or medium manufacturer, I don’t make ten million of anything – how do I benefit from automation? I want efficiency and productivity, but not if I lose flexibility.”
 
Rethink’s Baxter and Sawyer robots don’t miss a beat when working in an environment with frequent line turnovers or inconsistent part presentation. The company’s Robot Positioning System allows for redeployment without retraining, as the robot uses its vision-sensing system to recognize special Landmarks—stickers similar to QR codes—and couples itself to the work cell.
 
Along with what stands in for eyes, the cobots are equipped with tablets for “faces”—complete with images for eyes and eyebrows that show expressions.
 
“With decreased sensor prices and decreased computational prices, we should be able to drive efficiency and get flexibility,” Lawton said. “We should be able to have our cake and eat it, too.”
 

Helping with the reshoring trend


Lawton’s a big believer in the idea that automation—especially collaborative robots—can help drive reshoring as well.
 
“Low-cost labor models have largely run their course,” he said. Outsourcing to China is no longer financially viable, as Chinese manufacturing wages are on the rise. In the US, unfortunately, “not a lot of people want manufacturing jobs,” he said. Instead, manufacturers are turning to collaborative robots. Rethink Robotics' Baxter and Sawyer robots come equipped with vision sensing systems that enable quick and easy redeployment.
 
“If you need an efficient operation, and you can’t take advantage of traditional automation, you need people to take on all the jobs—even the dull, dangerous ones—and you have no choice but to chase the cheap labor,” he explained. “But now, we can automate jobs we couldn’t in the past, and manufacturers can run an efficient operation where they couldn’t before. Now you have a plant that can compete, and you can do it in a way that still allows people to earn good wages.”
 
BCG Research predicts that by 2025, adoption of advanced robots will boost productivity by up to 30% in many industries and lower total labor costs by 18% or more in the US, China, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and other countries.
 

Factories of the future


There’s a lot of buzz about Factories of the Future, Smart Factories and the Internet of Things. While it’s not yet clear exactly how robots will fit in to these scenarios, it’s clear they will have a place at the table.
 
In the 2015 World Robot Statistics Report, from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), experts predicted global industrial robotics sales would grow 15% per year by 2018, with the US, China, Germany, Japan and South Korea as the top markets, representing 70% of total sales.
 
As for what these robots will look like and how they will behave, the future is a little clearer. Manufacturers are already working on technologies that will allow the robot to use vision sensors to learn from visual and voice commands. Learning from and adapting to its environment is another challenge, because, as Lawton said, most robots still have limitations. “They’re ‘dumb’ in that they do what you tell them to do,” he said. “They execute what they’ve been programmed to execute.”
 
Robots will become more adaptable, he said. They’ll learn from their own experiences and share that information with other robots. They’ll also be able to learn from content that exists in the cloud.
 
“The convergence of all of these technologies is going to be extremely powerful,” Lawton said. “We know there’s something there. We have some inkling of what it will look like. And the winners will be the ones who figure it out sooner, and the losers will be the companies that go out of business.” 


Published Date : 4/15/2016

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