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Six-axis cobots serving as automation ambassadors

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Power- and force-limited robots can be easier to deploy, thanks in part to new controllers

Have collaborative, six-axis robots reached a tipping point in establishing their niche in manufacturing? And could they be opening doors for manufacturers to adopt automation overall?

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SaveMove2, the updated version of ABB’s safety certified robot monitoring software, enables closer collaboration between workers and robots.

“We’re definitely seeing an increasing trend toward the application of collaborative robots,” or cobots, said Claude Dinsmoor, general manager of Fanuc America’s general industry & automotive segment. “Power- and force-limited robots in some cases can be easier to deploy, and suddenly it’s encouraging people to look at all areas of automation. For some customers, it is somewhat of a gateway.”

Gateway or not, collaborative robots are certainly the focus of innovation.

Swiss company Stäubli Robotics recently introduced new six-axis collaboratives. Companies that are already established in the six-axis collaborative sector, like Fanuc, ABB and Denso, are improving controllers and robot monitoring software. And Universal Robots’ customers are finding innovative ways to use the company’s six-axis collaborative robots.

Stäubli offered new robotic arms recently, with the TX2 line of six-axis, collaboration-ready robots. The company also mounted one of its TX2 robots on an automatic guided vehicle and dubbed it HelMo.

“The TX2 is our newer generation, it works with our CS9 (safety) controller,” said Sebastien Schmitt, robotics division manager for Stäubli North America. “It is our answer to the collaborative environment.”

He pointed out the flexibility of the TX2 line, which can be deployed in a guarded cell or work safely alongside humans by adapting its speed to the operating environment.

“You don’t have to make a choice, saying ‘Will I use collaboration in my manufacturing, or will I use a robot fenced in? I’m not so sure yet.’ Will I need production full speed, which makes it challenging for collaboration, or do I need to interact often with my robot?” Schmitt said.

Many of Stäubli’s customers are automotive suppliers, but the company’s robots also are used in the life sciences industry where Lab 4.0, similar to Industry 4.0, is catching on. The TX2 line includes low- and medium-payload robots, ranging from 1.1 to 75 lb (0.5–34 kg), and can be adapted to work in sensitive environments, such as humid areas and clean rooms.

HelMo is a medium-payload TX2-90L on an AGV and operates through a laser scanner intuitive navigation system. Laser scanners provide acoustical and optical feedback and initiate a stop in case of a nearby human or obstacle.

HelMo is deployed for machine loading and unloading, packaging, and assembly, Schmitt said.

Making use of a virtual fence

Denso’s new RC8A controller makes it safer for humans to work around its robots by creating a virtual fence. A new feature—Safety Motion—is in addition to features and functions already available in the RC8.

Safety Motion uses two optical sensors, one at the top and one at the bottom of a cell, that let the controller know a human is approaching the robot. When that happens, the controller reduces the robot’s speed incrementally, to a safe level, depending on the human’s distance. When the person reaches the closest zone, the robot reduces its motor’s torque to stop or to slow down sufficiently to let an operator interact with it. When the operator moves away, the robot resumes its normal speed automatically, which helps minimize the time it’s stopped.

Optional accessories include a teaching pendant with a 7.5-inch color touchscreen, and a mini pendant with a 128 x 64-pixel LCD display.

Denso is the only robotics company that offers simulation in its teaching pendant, said Dave Robers, regional sales manager.

“Simulation becomes very, very essential because if you’re not sure how the robot’s going to go to a specific point or what it’s final position is going to be when it gets to that point, you have the potential to crash your robot or to damage your tooling or your equipment,” he said.

With dimensions of 12.5 x 14 x 3.69″ (31.75 x 35.56 x 9.37-cm), the RC8A remains the world’s smallest industrial robot controller with a 3-kW output. The compact size saves valuable factory-floor space and facilitates integration.

Denso’s ORiN open-resource interface networking system allows the RC8A to communicate with over 100 different types of devices.

Improving ease, speed

Fanuc’s new R-30iB Plus controller makes its six-axis robots easier and faster to use.

The R-30iB features a new iPendant with enhanced screen resolution and processing capability. The user interface, iHMI, has an icon-based screen, which provides a familiar experience with intuitive guides for setup and programming. It also includes tutorials from the main home page that are designed like those for Fanuc CNCs, enabling an easier transition to the use of robots.

The company has improved processing performance for both hardware and software in the R-30iB Plus, and the signal processing cycle has been shortened. Compared with past controllers, signal output timing is enhanced, expanding possible applications to systems that require a high level of positioning precision, such as laser applications.

“With the faster processing speeds, we’ve been able to make the programming interface on the pendant faster, snappier, more responsive,” Fanuc America’s Dinsmoor said. “With the increase in processing speed, we can also speed up the logic processing of the robot to allow it to deal with faster logic processing and time to execute.”

The vision function of R-30iB Plus has a new camera interface that increases by four times the speed for transmitting images from the camera, together with a simplified cable configuration.

“In addition, in our architecture, since we have integrated machine vision where we can allow you to hook up a simple camera and cable and integrate them with the function of the robot, we find other actions like machine vision image processing integrated with the robot is also faster,” Dinsmoor said. “So, again, what we’re very much trying to do is improve what the robot does and how fast it does it.”

Keeping operators safe

ABB has a new version of its robot-monitoring software, SafeMove2.

Like the first SafeMove, SafeMove2 includes a number of functions, including safe speed limits, safe standstill monitoring, safe axis ranges and position and orientation supervision. As a result, fencing can be installed much closer to the robot, making more efficient use of floor space possible.

“You can get more robots into the same space,” said Henrik Jerregard, global project manager for robot controllers at ABB in Västerås, Sweden.

“Both versions have the basic features of making sure that the robot stays within the typical area of the robot’s range,” he said. “With the second iteration, it’s much more flexible. We allow for more features such as additional zones, ranges and tools and we can simulate them in RobotStudio,” ABB’s simulation and offline programming software.

Another aspect of SafeMove2 is that it offers a software-based safety solution instead of a hardware-based solution. As a result, users can expect reduced investments as well as increased flexibility and reliability.

A common application SafeMove2 enables is with collaborative applications like machine loading or inspection, Jerregard said. With the safety software combined with safety sensors, an operator can walk up to the robot and look at the workpiece the robot is currently working with—because the app will slow down and then stop the robot.

SafeMove2 also integrates safety fieldbus connectivity into ABB’s IRC5 robot controller family, as well as the IRC5 Single, Compact and Paint controllers.

Becoming partner material

Universal Robots, a Danish company, makes three collaborative six-axis robots, the UR3, UR5 and UR10. They range in payload from 6.6 to 22 lb (3–10 kg), and in reach from 19.7 to 51.2″ (500–1300 mm).

Task Force Tips, an Indiana-based maker of firefighting equipment, installed one UR10 robot and two UR5 robots to tend CNC machines. A fourth robot, a UR5, is mounted to a wheeled table and moved between tasks.

“Lightweight, easy to set up, program and deploy, Universal Robots allow customers today to address high mix/low-volume production requirements by sharing the same robot in multiple applications and plant locations without incurring the cost of additional robots,” said Brian Dillman, area sales manager with Universal Robots.

Task Force Tips CEO Stewart McMillan said: “We can roll the table with the robot right up to the machine and in a few minutes teach the robot to load parts. They become kind of a partner to a person that goes around and helps them with the drudgery.”

The two vision-guided UR5 robots work in tandem, with one picking up and placing blanks for fire hose nozzles into a milling machine, then taking the half-machined part and handing it over to the second UR5 for additional processing.

Both the robot handoff and the vision guidance use the MODBUS communication protocol registers in the UR robots’ controller.

If a robot’s force detection identifies a misshapen part or machining chips in a chuck’s jaws, it tries blasting the debris away with pressurized air, and then washes out the chuck if that doesn’t work. If all that fails, and the part still can’t load, the robot notifies the operator.

Robot’s elbow bends instead of rotating

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An “elbow” that folds in on itself lets the Flexion N2 work in a space up to 40% smaller than comparable six-axis robots, according to Epson.

Manufacturers who want to fit a robotic arm in a tight space and speed up cycle times may be interested in Epson Robotics’ new Flexion Series.

The “elbow” on the robotic arms in the series folds in on itself instead of rotating. This enables the Flexion N2, the first available robot in the series, to work in a space up to 40% smaller than comparable six-axis robots and maximizes motion efficiency to speed up cycle times, Epson said. The N2 has a 17.7” (450-mm) reach, requires 18” (460 mm) of space, and has a 5.5-lb (2.5-kg) payload.

“In the electronics market, where we sell a ton of robots, we spoke with a few of our customers and they were very excited about the possibility of us shrinking down the size of this robot—so that they could reduce their total factory space,” said Rick Brookshire, group product manager. “It started in the electronics industry, but once we introduced the product, we started getting a lot of inquiries from the medical and automotive industries.”

Even though Epson’s C4 six-axis robots are compact compared with competitor offerings, Epson’s C4 six-axis robot is no match even with the company’s N2 when it comes to tight spaces, he said. The C4 has a 23.6” (600-mm) reach but requires 26” (660 mm) in which to work.

The N2 can be mounted on either the ceiling or a table top. It has options including vision guidance and force sensing.

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