Grasping the next generation of robotics

The Amazon Picking Challenge, set by global online retailer Amazon, challenged roboticists to create a robot that can pick and stow twelve products from a shelf, into a bag.

Robotics - Industrial IoT applications are being developed to monitor robots, thereby reducing downtime and improving efficiency.
Standard industrial grippers are built to pick up one thing, move it and put it down.

It may sound simple, but Amazon set the robotics challenge because this is the only area of their warehousing process that isn’t currently mechanised, due to the sheer variety of objects to be packed.

Standard industrial grippers are built to pick up one thing, move it and put it down. If you have two different sets of objects, you’ll need two different grippers to perform the task.

Modern manufacturers are increasingly diverse, producing reams of different products, often with custom finishes. Single use tooling is no longer sufficient to keep up with demand. Therefore, there’s a need for ‘smart’ tooling that is capable of recognising and picking different objects effectively.

The Shadow Robot Company has had plenty of experience manufacturing dextrous robotic hands for academia and nimble work, but this type of robot isn’t suitable for industrial applications. Instead, they looked to create a robust, reliable and intelligent ‘Smart Grasping System’.

As part of the design process, the Shadow Robot Company needed specific bearings with very tight tolerances in dimensional accuracy – vital for ease of installation and accuracy of the smart grasper’s movements. The team contacted Carterton-based SMB Bearings, a business well known for consistency and vast supply of non-standard bearings.

Based on the requirements of this unique project, SMB Bearings recommended and supplied EZO thin-type precision bearings.

Managing director at SMB Bearings, Chris Johnson explained: “The EZO thin-type precision bearings we provide have such accuracy because of EZO’s advanced manufacturing techniques and quality control.

“If every bearing that comes off the production line is not the same shape and size every time, then the accuracy of the robot joint positions and overall behaviour would be compromised.”

The Shadow Robot Company’s innovative and intelligent ‘Smart Grasping System’.
The Shadow Robot Company’s innovative and intelligent ‘Smart Grasping System’.

With the support of SMB Bearings and using a small sample of the EZO thin-type precision bearings, the R&D team at the Shadow Robot Company trialled different grease levels to find the optimal grease fill. SMB bearings then supplied the full amount of bearings required to this exact specification.

Created to stand-out from standard graspers on the market, the Smart Grasping System is still in development, but ultimately will have built-in “smart” intelligence, allowing it to pick up many types of objects, reducing the need for numerous hands in a factory.

Additionally, torque sensing on each joint will ensure the hand can make the most accurate and reliable grasp of whatever object it picks up.

Managing director at the Shadow Robot Company, Rich Walker commented: “I’m calling it transformative, because I know it will transform the manufacturing industry.

“When companies have deployed robots in the past, they’ve used grippers that were designed to perform one function, so you get a robot that performs one function. The modern manufacturing industry needs more flexibility than this.”

The Smart Grasping System will reduce the need for manufacturers to keep investing new grippers for different tasks. Changing machinery incurs huge costs, and takes up a lot of time. Equally, having many robots performing one single task is wasteful in terms of both capital costs and floor space. Together, SMB Bearings and the Shadow Robot

Company are working to solve this real-world manufacturing problem, freeing up floor space for a more efficient production line.

As for the Amazon Picking Challenge, the Shadow Robot Company set its own picking challenge, using objects from Amazon’s contents as well as others, to put the Smart Grasping System to the test.

The Smart Grasper recognised and grasped these objects with ease, demonstrating the success of smart engineering and high precision bearings, to give the manufacturing industry what it desperately needs.