Packaging robots have been designed to replace human labor, albeit with superhuman strength, agility, and speed. The range of movement, strength, and speed allow these machines to lift entire pallets onto trucks or pick up individual muffins hot out of the oven.
These robots were on display at PackExpo in Las Vegas last month. The entire tradeshow floor was alive with robotic movement. The robots were amazingly agile, surprisingly strong, and unexpectedly quiet.
This is the new manufacturing workforce. These machines are so efficient, they have reduced the importance of cheap labor as a factor in whether a plant is built in China or Ohio. While they reduce the manual workforce, they come with a small army of engineers. For the new engineer they are especially attractive, since running these robots can be done through simulation -- much like playing a video game.
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Here’s the claw end of a robot arm. ABB’s FlexGripper can be adjusted to pick up a wide range of items, large or small. (Source: ABB)
Good points, Greg. As for safety, the move to robots tends to improve safety. for one, a virtual safety network can be set around the robot. Also, because of the servo technology, the robots stop instantly -- no gearing down. At the show, folks at the booths showed the safety by sticking their hands in the path of the speedy robot. With the safety breech, the robot would freeze instantly.
My Design, safety was one of the selling points at Pack Expo. The servo drives and safety programs tied to individual robots seem to be an advancement in safety. The virtual light curtains and instant halt seem to be taking safety to a new level.
Good point, Mydesign. It does look like companies are putting more emphasis on packing. And while the robots reduce the need for manual labor, they do employ engineers. They also reduce the differential between labor costs in Asia and the rest of the world. Thus, logistics costs may trump labor as the expense to watch -- that helps fuel the trend toward buiulding plants close to markets.
MyDesign, I think robots really help in reducing the power of labor to determine everything in where stuff is built. If logistics costs play a bigger role than labor, it's natural that manufacturing moves closer to markets. A side benefit would be energy savings and environmental gains.
As a robot programmer with my previous company, I got to learn a bit about robotics. (Well, I still fool with them here, but only in maintenance aspects usually.)
The ABB FlexPicker is really amazing. Watching the youtube video of it picking up widgets off of a conveyor and putting them onto another conveyor in an endless cycle at amazingly high speed is really mesmerizing to watch.
The end tooling / gripper is usually one of the limiting factors in robotics use. Some items just don't pick up well with robots. One of the most incredible grippers to see is a "Jamming Phase Transition" gripper. It's basically a balloon filled with coffee grounds, and the balloon can have a vacuum applied. The gripper is placed against an item and a vacuum applied, which makes the device rigid, which conforms to what it was pressed against. You really have to see this to believe it, and here's a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKOI_lVDPpw
I haven't seen any industrial applications of this technology yet, but I hope it will eventually happen.
As for the human-safe robots, the Baxter seems more like a toy without the ability to reach pre-programmed points with accuracy. The Universal Robotics devices seem more like industrial robots. I played with a UR-5 at a trade-show and was impressed with it. I tested it running into my arm and it was a bizarre to me considering that I'm used to working with giant robots which would crush me. The reach and payload capacity of their two models aren't good enough for any of my applications yet, but I'd love to get one in my plant somehow.