Robotic automation, development at pace!

Developments in robotics are happening at pace. Steve Sands, Head of Product Management at Festo GB, shares his thoughts.

Whether it is the alignment of key technological trends or the societal upheavals caused by global pandemics and rising climatic temperatures, the impacts are being felt in our factories and our shops. We have talked for many years in the engineering automation sector about the accelerating pace of innovation and whether this is real or solely our viewpoint perception. I believe there are many exciting changes afoot. Talking with our customers at shows and events I hear about the change drivers they are experiencing and how these manifest in their businesses: for example, as labour shortages in fields and factories, rising energy costs or the need for higher flexibility and productivity. For Festo and other automation suppliers, the result is increasing opportunities for automation and robotics.

These change drivers aren’t just local. Global technology giants are investing heavily in robotics. For example, Google have stated the aim to leverage their machine learning technologies into robotics. They have also invested in their own household service robotics company, Everyday Robots, with some very interesting mobile robot concepts for homes, offices and factories.

Despite significant turmoil in the US tech sectors, Amazon and Tesla are also pushing into robotic technology. Both have their own internal automation needs but see many opportunities beyond their own warehouses and factories. Amazon acquired Kiva twenty years ago to provide in-house capability. Today they have their Cardinal workcells selecting and picking and placing individual random packages using AI and vision to optimise performance. Their Proteus mobile pallet-lifting robots incorporate the latest sensors and autonomous controls to enable them to work safely alongside human operators without physical barriers or demarcations. In the last few months Tesla has revealed its Optimus humanoid robot, literally making big strides in a short space of time for a new robotics team. These new entrants into the robotic sector are bound to be disruptive and further drive the pace of change.

Robotic innovations

Festo has continued its robotic development projects, looking at ultra-lightweight handling systems, reducing moving masses and making it safer for automated assistance devices to work alongside humans. One of the Festo robotic development strands has been looking at the use of controlled pneumatics. This has evolved into a concept cobot that was shown at Hannover Fair earlier this year, offering some very interesting features which are being evaluated in industrial applications.

These development concepts haven’t only demonstrated an interesting diversification of drive technology, they have also incorporated improved - and that means simplified - programming and teaching modes, and more flexible end-effectors. Traditionally, we have used vacuum generated by pumps or venturi nozzles with contact through flexible cups or porous plates for most pick and place applications or specialist Bernoulli non-contact grippers suitable for very delicate substrates. The alternative has been mechanical grippers, usually two- or three-fingered, and moving in either a parallel or angled motion with the fingers. These grippers mechanically squeeze or engage with the profile of the component to be moved. Developments in grippers have driven the technology in two directions. Design reviews have removed material, not only reducing cost but more importantly reducing moving mass. Higher technology grippers are offering more flexible control over position and force using fieldbus protocols.

An interesting new development in robotic end-effectors is in the field of soft grippers or fingers. Festo have shown several solutions for flexible grippers inspired by nature that wrap around the product more like human hands and fingers. These range from flexible gripper fingers that mount onto standard mechanical grippers or wholly soft devices more akin to a gecko’s tongue or octopus’s tentacle.

LifeTech (or Life Sciences), has been one of the fastest changing robotic sectors for Festo. In part, this has been because the Covid pandemic rapidly accelerated the use of highly automated processes in drug discovery.

Our attempts to control the virus and find long-term cures required massive quantities of rapid and reliable laboratory tests. Laboratory sample preparation tasks were initially conducted manually. This involved the deployment of large numbers of people working under hazardous and PPE-restricted conditions whilst undertaking precise and repetitive tasks. As the longer-term medical implications clarified, it became clear we needed to meet this demand with automation.

Festo has supplied cartesian-based robot solutions for many of these applications. The scale can vary from a complete system no larger than a sheet of A4 size paper to other industry applications with gantries spanning more than 30m2. The common success factor in delivering such solutions lies in the ability to combine axes easily and select the appropriate motors and motion controllers for the task to provide the required speed, force and precision.

Design solutions

In over thirty years in automation, I have never seen such pressure for rapid delivery of handling system designs. Fortunately, due to the experience of the Festo Core Engineering team, a modular design platform and standardised mounting interfaces, we are able to produce design concepts for customised multi-axis handling solutions in a matter of hours. One urgent request for a health-related application hit our desks at 4.30pm and was available as a 3D drawing for the customer’s design review first thing the next morning.

Software to make cartesian and gantry system design fast and error-free has enabled swift turnaround times. A design and selection package called Handling Guide Online [HGO] allows us to input the application requirements in the customers’ language, such as the stroke lengths, mass to be moved, etc. The HGO then looks for all possible solutions based upon feed forces, inertia and the mechanical bearing specifications and then prioritises them. Price may be the most critical factor – but so too can power requirements or safety factors for bearing overload.

Here is where the vision behind Industry 4.0 comes into play. The models created within the HGO contain not only the simulations but also the mechanical design and bill of materials. The 3D CAD drawing is created in numerous formats simultaneously and even includes documentation for electrical wiring and programming I/O allocations. All this data seamlessly transfers into the preferred documentation software such as EPLAN. Kinematic models can be picked up within higher-level simulation packages, enabling the simulation of complete stations. The operating (PLC) program can be pre-written and virtually commissioned: all before any metal is cut or assembled.

Looking forward

While the global pandemic forced many of us to work in isolation, digital communication stepped in and connection with colleagues was re-established. Industrial Automation has similarly changed. In the past, application support consultations between designers and suppliers were conducted face to face. Today many customers have found that, with increased access to easy to use, free of charge software, they can specify many handling and automation systems on their own. Where additional support is required, remote consultation has become the norm and is frequently provided faster than site visits allowed. We won’t return to previous habits now we have become used to fast online services, setting the trend for accelerated robot design and delivery in the future.

April 2023