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Rise of the robots

17 July 2018

The ever occurring march towards Industry 4.0 means that it has never been more important to invest in robotics and automation. Fortunately, there is no shortage of innovative and cutting-edge models to choose from, as this round up from Charlotte Stonestreet demonstrates

Any regular reader of IPE will most likely be well versed in the benefits of automation and robotics. For example, Made Smarter, the report led by Jürgen Maier of Siemens that makes up part of the government’s Industrial Strategy, asserts that the automation of manufacturing processes, coupled with real-time process monitoring and re-engineering, can result in radical improvements in cost efficiency and accuracy, allowing work to move back to the UK from low-wage economies and strengthening UK supply chains. And while there are concerns that automation takes jobs, Made Smarter paints a much more positive picture of the effect of digitalisation, of which automation is a key factor, and the resulting creation of new jobs, with the main threat identified not as job losses due to automation, but whether the UK can equip manufacturing workers with the new digital skills required now and in the future.

It is somewhat disheartening that, as revealed by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) earlier this year, the UK is the only G7 country to have a robot density (robot units per 10,000 employees) below the global average of 74 - with just 71, bringing the country in at a disappointing 22nd in the world. As the IFR  points out, in the UK general industry is highly in need of necessary investment in order to modernise and increase productivity, and the low robot density rate is indicative of this fact.

The UK does boast many highly innovative companies working to push the boundaries of robotics

However, it’s not all bad news and the UK does boast many highly innovative companies working to push the boundaries of robotics and automation, although they are not necessarily concentrated in the industrial sector. Take 2017 start-up ZOA Robotics for example, which secured an £85,000 seed investment from the British Robotics Seed Fund (BRSF). ZOA Robotics’ goal is to develop four-legged robots with the grace of animals that can move anywhere. The company is looking to introduce its low cost highly mobile robots to tackle movement of goods across sites with uneven ground and multiple levels, reducing the use of manual labour to move payloads around.

According to robotics crowdfunding platform, Britbots, the dynamic and lightweight robots are targeted at businesses operating on large or remote sites with uneven terrain where items need moving and where wheels struggle. This includes oil rigs, industrial process plants and construction sites.

Surgical robot

Another British company, CMR Surgical, is developing a next-generation surgical robot, Versius, which will, it is reported, help to realise the untapped potential of robotic-assisted minimal access surgery for surgeons and patients across the globe, solving many problems encountered with existing surgical robotic systems, with the aim of delivering a more genuinely affordable solution for healthcare systems worldwide.

Versius is designed to meet the complex requirements of laparoscopic surgery and is intended to be used across a range of surgical specialties. It is inspired by the human arm, with a unique patented four-axis wrist joint that has remarkable dexterity, flexibility and reach. Laparoscopy is a difficult technique to master. It is both mentally and physically demanding for the surgeon while not all surgeons who take on the additional two years’ worth of training reach the required standard. Robotically assisted laparoscopy significantly reduces the surgeon burden and can speed up training to a matter of months.

Daedalus Pavilion consists of 48 pieces that are 3D printed using a KUKA industrial robot

In additive manufacturing, Ai Build’s remit is to develop robotic technologies to support 3D printing in the built environment. In an impressive demonstration of how the future of construction can be transformed by robotics and artificial intelligence, in partnership with ARUP Engineers the company presented Daedalus Pavilion, a 3D printed architectural installation built by robots, as part NVIDIA's GPU Technology Conference in Amsterdam. Daedalus Pavilion measures 5m wide x 5m deep x 4.5m high, and it consists of 48 pieces that are 3D printed using a KUKA industrial robot. All pieces were 3D printed within 3 weeks, using 160 kg of biodegradable filament material supplied by the Dutch manufacturer, Formfutura.

Ai Build made use of NVIDIA GPUs for running a combination of computer vision and deep learning algorithms to increase the speed and accuracy of large scale 3D printing.


London London-based Automata was founded in January 2015 by Mostafa El Sayed and Suryansh Chandra who previously worked as lead designers at Zaha Hadid Architecture to democratise robotics by lowering costs and improving usability. The company plans to use a robotics-as-a-service (RAAS) business model to integrate robotics into existing workflows more efficiently and to bring automation to new markets.

Automata’s low-cost, plug and play, table-top robotic arm called Eva is suited to use in design studios, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and education.

Eva is an example of one of the latest trends in robotics, a collaborative robot. Also referred to as cobots, collaborative robots are designed to operate in a shared workspace and physically interact with humans. European pioneer of the technology, Universal Robots has recently launched its new flagship e-Series.

The e-Series includes technology advances that enables faster development for a wider variety of applications, offers easier programming than ever, and meet the very latest ISO safety standards.

Built-in, tool-centric Force/Torque sensor gives the e-Series the superior precision and greater sensitivity needed for deployment in an even wider range of applications.

A re-designed intuitive and responsive-touch user interface reduces cognitive load and expedites program development by simplifying programming flow and reduces programming to a few clicks on a new lightweight, wide-screen Teach Pendant.

Highly convenient to set-up, the e-Series takes just one hour to unpack, mount and program the first task. A wrist-joint-tool communication interface reduces production line integration time and complexity. Meanwhile, from a service standpoint, all joints can be replaced in 2 to 6 minutes.

Seventeen safety functions, including customisable stopping time and distance, make collaborative automation easier than ever. Certified by TÜV Nord all these functions are in compliance with the EN ISO 13849-1 and EN ISO 10218-1 (Cat. 3 PLd) machinery safety standards for unobstructed human-robot collaboration.

ABB has also enhanced its cobot offering. The newest member of YuMi family is reported to be ABB’s most agile and compact collaborative robot yet and can easily integrate into existing production. The IRB 14050 single-arm YuMi is one of the first of a new generation of robots from ABB to be built on a flexible new modular design platform that will allow a greater variety of robots and sizes, and more tailored solutions.

Weighing less than 10kg, and capable of being mounted from a ceiling, table and wall, this new addition to the YuMi family offers increased flexibility to help meet high-mix, low volume production in short cycles.  Easy to install, the single-arm YuMi allows manufacturers to quickly and easily add collaborative applications to their production lines with minimal interruption to existing operations.

The single-arm YuMi also features the same intuitive, easy-to-use lead through programming as the dual-arm YuMi, meaning that workers without specialised training can setup and operate the robot. Combining this simplicity with the robot’s deployment flexibility can help manufacturers in many industries offset shortages of skilled workers.

SCARA robots

It’s not just new models of cobots that the market is seeing.  Reportedly developed to set the standard for the next generation of SCARA robots, TM Robotics’ THE400 combines high-speed operation and a high payload capacity, promising to deliver fast-cycle automation to meet the growing demand for speed in parts assembly, testing and transfer processes in the electronics and automotive manufacturing industries. The robot is capable of operating speeds of 7000mm per second, with cycle times hitting 0.3 seconds for a standard 2kg payload. The THE400 model can withstand a maximum payload of 5kg, with an allowable moment of inertia of 0.06kgm².

To meet rising demand for fast-cycle automation, the THE400 robot thoroughly redesigns the mechanism and control functions of previous SCARA robots. The model also boasts improved performance with regard to servo control, enabling enhanced arm tracking performance and more accurate movement.

Optional specifications for the robot include an ergonomic anti-dust design, a tool flange to attach a mounting hand, a bracket tailored to mount a vision camera and a robot-controller cable that has been designed to a customised length. Looking to the future, Toshiba Machine also plans to release a ceiling-mounted version of the design and a THE400 model specifically designed for cleanrooms.

Another new generation announced in the SCARA market, this time from Omron, the i4 has been designed to save space during installation, and allow easier configuration into existing production lines. It is fast, repeatable, easy to operate and flexible for multiple configurations and applications.

manufacturing companies must maintain flexibility in quick changeovers and production line layout changes

Manufacturers around the world are facing major challenges in having to produce a high mix low volume of products and shorter product life cycles while dealing with labor shortage issues. Therefore, manufacturing companies must maintain flexibility in quick changeovers and production line layout changes. They are also challenged by sudden stops, and more than ever need to meet the demands of high accuracy and speed during assembly processes.

To meet these challenges, the i4 line features better communication through EtherCAT, enabling synchronisation between other automation devices. This facilitates advanced assembly, inserting and mounting processes that require high accuracy and demanding throughput, as well as ensured quality control with vision integration.

i4 visualises working data and supervises its status with the world’s first built-in signals for preventive maintenance, allowing users to mitigate unplanned downtime. In keeping with Omron’s mission to innovate based on social need like the above, the features of the i4 makes it possible for this new SCARA line to meet the demands of mass customisation, allowing manufacturers to produce high mixes of products at low volume to offer a wider array of goods to people.

Omron will introduce the first three models in spring 2019: the i4-650, i4-750 and i4-850, which have an arm reach of 650mm, 750mm and 850mm, respectively. The payload can hold up to 15kg, which is three times heavier than before. Customers also have a choice of two different Z-axis strokes (210mm and 410mm) for each robot.

Compact, high-strength

With space at a premium in many facilities some robots are being designed to combine strength with a compact footprint. For example, manufacturers with limited floor space and heavy machine tending requirements can further enhance efficiency and productivity thanks to the latest lightweight, compact, high-strength robot from Fanuc.

The six-axis M20iB/35S is the newest addition to the M20iB portfolio of industrial robots. With an impressive strength-to-weight ratio, the robot is particularly suited to aggressive manufacturing environments in which space is at a premium.

“The M20iB/35S is designed to achieve faster cycles and increased throughput for manufacturers with limited floor space and heavy workpieces,” says Tom Bouchier, MD at Fanuc UK. “It’s also highly flexible with several mounting options. This means you can benefit from the precision, control and reliability of a FANUC robot, even in the smallest of spaces.”

With a total weight of 205kg, the robot is able to lift payloads of up to 35kg, thanks to a strong wrist and high inertia. It can also reach up to 1445mm and is fully enclosed to IP67-standard.

Bouchier continues: “The robot’s enclosed design makes it resistant to the ingress of dust, water, dirt, or any other contaminants that occur during the manufacturing process. All power and data cables, motors and user interface services are also integrated into the arm, further reducing the robot’s footprint.”

For industrial end-users new to automation, the robot is compatible with the R-30iB Plus Controller and the iPendant Touch, both of which simplify the programming process through an easy-to-use, intuitive interface.

“Even a complete beginner can successfully program simple commands with minimal training,” Bouchier says. “Users can also benefit from a host of optional extras, such as the iRVision, an intelligent robot vision tool for pick and place applications.”

Lightweight, high-speed

This year’s Automatica event saw Yaskawa augment its Motoman robot portfolio with what is now its smallest model; with a range of 350mm the new MotoMINI can handle a payload of 500g.

As a lightweight, high-speed robot the compact 6-axis computer combines fast cycle rates with a high degree of repeatability of 0.03 mm. This makes the MotoMINI ideal for handling small workpieces and components, but of course also for assembly work in small production machines. Thanks to its compact design, it has only a small footprint.

Within the smallest of spaces this robot moves components in all three directions and around all three axes. This freedom of movement facilitates more complex, three-dimensional handling operations.

It reduces the space requirements for the production plant, while boosting productivity. At only 7kg the dead weight of the manipulator is so small that depending on operating conditions or workpiece being processed the robot can be used flexibly and application-specific. Installation on linear axes or other “workplace extenders” likewise broadens the field of application of the MotoMINI.

The MotoMINI is operated with the new high-performance Motoman YRC1000micro controller. Its hand-held programmer – the lightest in its category at only 730g – is ergonomic and clearly arranged. The touchscreen enables intuitive operation and thus simple movement and scrolling with the cursor. A 3D simulation on the display of the hand-held programmer shows the movement of the real robot arm and the limits of safe working. Open interfaces mean the new generation of controllers is suited for use in Industry 4.0 environments.

Inspired by nature

Festo has unveiled two new lightweight robotic concepts, inspired by nature. The BionicWheelBot and BionicFlyingFox are this year’s creations from the company’s Bionic Learning Network, where Festo’s experts looked at the motion of spiders and bats to navigate complex situations — from crossing rocky terrain to learning efficient flight paths.

BionicWheelBot robot is based on the flic-flac spider, which lives in the Sahara and escapes predators with cartwheels and flips. Bionics professor Ingo Rechenberg, who discovered the spider, was involved in helping to design Festo’s version, whereby its intricate motion has been transferred to kinematics and drive technology. It has eight legs which are controlled by 15 motors within the knee joints and body. When it rolls, it does a somersault with its whole body, tucking in six of the legs and using the remaining two to push off the ground with every rotation. Thanks to an integrated inertial sensor, the robot knows its position and when to push while rolling.

Festo has also created BionicFlyingFox based on the movement of world’s largest bat. The flying fox can move semi-autonomously in a defined space by communicating with a motion-tracking system that constantly records its position. Images from a camera go to a computer which evaluates the data and coordinates the bat’s flight. Its wing movements are calculated using on-board electronics, with a 9g brushless DC motor driving the flapping of the wings via a rack-and-pinion gear system. Take-off and landing are controlled by a human operator.

AI via the cloud

Like all industrial equipment, robots require service and maintenance. At Mitsubishi the latest predictive maintenance solution for robots utilises the AI platform within IBM Watson to assess actual maintenance requirements and then suggest actions to take in an efficient and timely manner. The platform uses predictive maintenance models, digital simulation and extrapolation of trends to provide maintenance information based on actual usage and wear characteristics.

At Mitsubishi the latest predictive maintenance solution for robots utilises the AI platform within IBM Watson

Using augmented reality, system maintenance activities can also be optimised through the use of smart glasses, where the operator receives guidance on what tasks need to be performed. The glasses can show CAD drawings of the various robot parts, superimposed over the robot itself. The glasses can also show the maintenance manual and individual instructions.