The five most important robotics trends of 2011 enable volume manufacturing and aim at further integration of robotics with machine vision and automated systems. Some of the trends outlined below discuss very targeted applications, from bomb sniffing to baggage handling, but the developments in each are relevant to other, sometimes very different, types of applications. These developments concern both the design of robots themselves and the systems in which they work. (Separately, take a look at our Slideshow: Humanoid Robots Get Real.)
One of the most significant trends in robotics is the integration of multiple technologies
that will help speed up and automate the factory.
1) Integration. A key trend is the integration of multiple technologies to speed up and automate the factory. Computing Advances Permit New Integration Answers looks at how vision systems, robotics, and 3D laser scanning are being used in a wider range of applications as prices come down and performance goes up. One example is a vision system that verifies box size and the placement of labels on cases coming off a packaging line. Ten years ago, the system would have required cameras and processors costing more than $100,000, but today it can be built using a single camera for around $30,000.
2) Bomb-sniffing robots. Integration is also a major theme in military robots that sniff out bombs. These sophisticated robots integrate sensors, cameras, processors, and various feedback devices. Though they offer a great deal of autonomy and multiple capabilities, their growing complexity is increasing their weight, size, and cost. A new modular design platform, described in Simplifying the Complex in High-Risk Duty Robots, departs from onboard processors and other devices and substitutes direct user control. The robot’s path is determined via images transmitted by its wide-angle infrared camera. These and other improvements have reduced costs to the point where 10 robots can be purchased for the cost of one previous model.
Thanks for that observation about simplified programming and the development of programs for specialized apps. ABB has been promoting that idea, at least one one or two of their recent announcements. This parallels a similar trend in other aspects of automation, including machine vision.
Ann, The development of applications programming packages in specific areas such as palletizing is an example of how robot makers are simplifying the software required for integrated systems. The user doesn't need to implement the robotics programming themselves. With the singulation system, it is more of a packaged solution where the machine builder is providing a flexible turnkey solutions that can easily be adapted to a specific requirement. Less costly than a fully custom subsystem.
Thanks for all the great info, Al. I like the idea of limited programming, which is a trend in machine vision and it looks like maybe in robotics, too. It sounds like not only have robots had to adapt to factory conditions, but factory conditions may also have had to adapt to robots to help them be more efficient: I refer to the placing of items in a single line. Or did I misunderstand you?
In specific types of machines such as high speed assembly, palletizing, robot loaders and material handling robots, the creativity is using the Delta configuration in conjunction with software tools to solve specific applications -- sometimes with limited programming required. One example is ABB's RobotStudio Palletizing PowerPac, which allows users to configure, simulate and program ABB robots and grippers for palletizing solutions, in one step, with little or no robot programming experience required. What used to take days now takes minutes. Another example is singulation systems which are able to increase the efficiency of Delta robots in picking and placing food items such as bagels or English muffins by placing them is a single file line. That simplifies locating the product during high speed operation. Robots can then pick up one or two products per pick, and place them into a subsequent manufacturing system such as a flow wrapper or a carton loader.
So their main advantage sounds like speed and dexterity in handling smaller, lighter objects. I noticed that earlier you mentioned "more creative material handling and tooling" wrt Deltas. What exactly did you mean? Please tell us more!
Yes, that's true. But higher speeds and flexibility are the key ingredients and the reason why Delta style robots are moving into new applications. And in some configurations that go beyond 4 axes, I believe that there are payload limitations.
Thanks for the summary, Al. So it's not just the structure but the mass differential that makes this architecture different. Sounds like they are not designed for picking up and moving heavier objects.
Ann, Delta robots have been emerging because of their ability to do high speed pick and place applications (less mass in the arms), increased flexibility and sophisticated multi-axis wrists that enable quick orientation of products in a small area. The development of the six axis Delta robot has helped introduce Delta style robots into high speed assembly where they were never capable enough because they only had four axes. These are applications that used to be handled using SCARA robots, which are as fast as Delta robots but again only have four axes or on a slower scale with regular six axis articulated arms. A significant drawback is that Delta systems are designed to handle lighter payloads where an articulated arm can handle much heavier products.
Thanks for the info, Al. Can you tell us some more about the Delta-style robot? This appears to be a particular spider-like architecture, right? The name makes me wonder if it started out in military apps. Why is this one becoming so popular? How does it compare with other architectures?
Ann, Excellent story. The only other additional trend in robotics I have seen is the continued penetration of the Delta-style robot into application areas such as high speed assembly, palletizing, robot loaders and material handling robots. Both speed and more creative material handling and tooling is making the Delta configuration a good choice for enhancing performance and productivity.
If you see a hitchhiker along the road in Canada this summer, it may not be human. That’s because a robot is thumbing its way across our neighbor to the north as part of a collaborative research project by several Canadian universities.
Stanford University researchers have found a way to realize what’s been called the “Holy Grail” of battery-design research -- designing a pure lithium anode for lithium-based batteries. The design has great potential to provide unprecedented efficiency and performance in lithium-based batteries that could substantially drive down the cost of electric vehicles and solve the charging problems associated with smartphones.
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