Once maintaining high-volume operations in auto factories, today we find robots infiltrating all sectors of the commercial world. Even beyond traditional manufacturing, inspection, and packaging processes, we see robots performing tasks that range from mining and space exploration, to surgery and laboratory research, to fruit picking. With so many applications, today’s robots need one key attribute: flexibility. Much of this flexibility comes through arm end (gripper) tools, which means there are many factors to consider when selecting a gripper technology supplier, not the least of which is portfolio breadth, proven customization capabilities and high levels of customer support.
We all know that auto factories have been working with automation for many years. This sector also remains a major driver of robot sales worldwide. Apart from welding and painting, the auto industry deploys robots to perform tasks including assembly, trimming, cutting, moving parts, and machine care, to name a few.
Rounding out the progress made by auto plants is a growing group of other industries, including food and beverage, life sciences, and agriculture, all of which are increasing their uptake of robotics in order to increase productivity, efficiency, employee safety, product quality, and profit. In short, there is an additional focus on making production lines more flexible and better able to efficiently achieve higher-mix and lower-volume production in response to ever-evolving customer demands.
New industries drive demand
According to a McKinsey report, 88% of companies worldwide plan to introduce robotic automation into their infrastructure. With so many new industries driving sales, Mordor Intelligence reports that the global robotics market could reach $74.1 billion by 2026 (up from $27.73 billion in 2020), registering a compound annual growth rate of 17.45%. However, while the future looks bright for those in the field of robotics, we know from experience that there are some prerequisites that underscore success in sectors other than automobiles.
While bots in a large parking lot typically perform a single task, flexibility is the key word for non-automated bot applications. Here, users assign bots to different tasks that may change regularly. For those thinking that programming is a problem in high-mix, low-volume manufacturing environments, think again. Today’s robotics manufacturers, collaborative robotics specialists and software companies offer solutions that guarantee straightforward programming, so much so that even operators with little or no experience can create motion paths in a very short time.
AI and ML
While we are all aware that bots perform repetitive tasks more efficiently than humans, there is a new trend here: using AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning (machine learning), bots can think, learn, and draw accurate conclusions without the help of human colleagues. It’s an exciting opportunity for industry across the board, especially when you consider that robots can support the transformation to Industry 4.0/digitalization, largely because they outperform traditional locomotion systems on complex tasks.
For example, while many of the machines on the shop floor are fully automated, handling tasks from the warehouse to final assembly and packaging are often not automated due to the inherent complexities. Today, however, the latest robotic solutions aid in a continuous flow through the factory, which can lead to the concept of “dark” or light manufacturing, with not so few people controlling the processes.
With robots set to become an essential resource in many types of factories, achieving flexibility is critical for any tasks that involve handling or servicing. Here, about 50% of applications require modifications to the finger and/or gripper to suit customer requirements.
For both robot users and manufacturers, there are many goals when it comes to product selection, including price-performance ratio, flexibility, ease of adoption, and safety. However, end-of-arm gripper technology is a key factor for tasks such as material handling, packaging, machine care, assembly, quality control, and surface finishing.
Here at SMC we offer a full range of gripper solutions, including pneumatic, electric, magnetic and vacuum, ensuring adaptability to all gripping needs. We can also supply FRL modules, piping, valves and serial connections, using either wire-to-wire or conventional technology, thus creating a turnkey solution for new robotic installations or retrofit projects.
We help robotics engineers tap into ‘languages’ they are likely to be unfamiliar with, such as pneumatics, by helping to translate or interpret the requirements of pneumatic motion control and the benefits it can bring. Our team of experts can help explain everything from valve island technology and filtration to airflow and system pressure. Although SMC offers a wide range of electric actuators, pneumatics remains our main language, which is why more and more robotic OEMs and manufacturing plants are asking for our help.
Quick tool changes
To provide flexibility, robots often need to use different grippers, which is why fast and reliable tool changing technology is of the utmost importance. However, many solutions are expensive and have some risks due to complex air/signal connections. For this reason, our team of design engineers here at SMC has developed the MHF2-X7076A, a low-profile, modular pneumatic clutch with finger shift function. The robots automatic tool changer means that users simply replace the gripper (finger) tip without any risk. Wires and tubing are brought together in the air gripper body (bot side) to improve electrical contact during tool changes and reduce air leakage.
As an added market differentiator, we offer wireless communication with the clutch tool to eliminate any risk of lost and interrupted communication. Our EX600-W wireless system means fewer cables and connectors, less installation and maintenance, and fewer drops and disconnects to provide a completely reliable, noise-resistant connection. Robotics users are increasingly adopting our highly responsive EX600-W wireless system to improve OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness), a key metric for any production or process operations.
From now on, our R&D team is constantly working on system modularity, resulting in faster clutch changes and less risk of stalling. Your productivity and uptime are our top priorities. About 50% of all robot handles we currently produce are custom bodies, which highlights our credibility as a capable and proven technical partner.
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