Do-it-yourself modular robotics are slashing the cost of automation, finds Malcolm Wheatley.
Robots in manufacturing are hardly new. First gaining a toehold in the late 1970s and early 1980s, today such names as Kuka, Hitachi, ABB, and Unimation are a familiar sight in manufacturers within the automotive, aerospace, domestic appliance and heavy engineering industries.
But they are far less common a sight outside such industries. And it isn’t difficult to see why. Conventional robots are large expensive pieces of machinery, and the investment required to incorporate them with a production line is significant. People, ironically, are easier to program, are far more flexible, and definitely have a lower upfront cost of acquisition.
Rise of the modular machines
But not, perhaps, for much longer. New and innovative robotics suppliers are taking those capabilities that robots genuinely excel at – repetitive tasks carried out consistently, at high speed, with great precision and without risk of industrial health problems such as Repetitive Strain Injury – and transplanting them to a new breed of industrial robots.
The bottom line? Robots that are simpler, cheaper, and which can be built from individual components – often by a manufacturer’s existing plant engineers. In short, the concept of modular robotics looks set to re-write the rules of industrial automation.
“With robotics, the challenge is making the capital case, and getting the budget,” says Brian Holliday, divisional director for industry automation at Siemens. “So from a manufacturer’s point of view, robots that are lower cost, smaller and easier to configure are very good news.”
The logic isn’t difficult to see, says Tim Mead, commercial director of Innomech, a special purpose industrial equipment design and development manufacturer at the forefront of the emerging modular robotics market.
“In today’s markets, flexible and short product lifecycles are everything, and an investment in large heavy robots is often just not worth it: what you want is flexible and re-deployable robots,” he argues. “Robots that are cheaper and easier to deploy can make an enormous difference when it comes to work-related stress, injuries and fatigue.”
And as well as not being subject to fatigue or back injuries, he points out, robots are perfectly happy to perform the same repetitive task over and over again – and in the process, deliver high levels of product consistency and quality.
What’s more, says Alun Reece, technical director at industrial automation technology and robotics specialist Loop Technology, modular robotics allow companies to build to a budget, designing an application in a modular manner and adding additional capabilities as budget permits.
All of which makes perfect sense – although traditional six axis programmable robots from the big-name suppliers certainly aren’t going to go the way of the dinosaur.
“There’s still very much a need for them,” insists Nigel Dawson, product marketing manager for handling and positioning at Festo, another supplier of modular robotics automation solutions. “For applications such as paint spraying, or in the manufacture of automotive engines or gearboxes, they’re ideal – and probably always will be. But the trend towards lower-cost modular systems is undeniable.”
Loop Technology’s Reece agrees. “It’s horses for courses,” he sums up. “Modular robotics makes sense in some situations, but not others. Either way, we’ve seen a big increase in the adoption of robotics over the last two or three years. In other words, as a concept, modular isn’t going to go away.”
DIY robots and modular automation systems on the market
Innomech: Robox – a ‘robot in a box’
Ideal for short product life cycles and the demands of flexible production, Innomech’s RoBox can be quickly and easily reconfigured for new tasks without its operators needing any specialist programming knowledge.
Described as “a new concept in high performance, low cost robotics,” RoBox is intended to enable even low-volume manufacturers to improve their competitiveness by automating critical manufacturing processes.
“Robot based automation is widely accepted as one of the best ways for companies to cuts costs, but many manufacturers are reluctant to invest, because of worries over cost, set up time and reliability,” says David Beale, technical director at Innomech.
- RoBox is designed to provide manufacturers with the reusable core of a robotic cell. All the interfaces required to connect to specific work-related tools are present
- RoBox can be easily configured to handle a range of manufacturing assembly and testing tasks in a many different markets
- Flexible automated workcells such as RoBox are also being increasingly recognised as a way of reducing the commercial risk of an occupational injury or litigation claim resulting from Repetitive Strain Injury or other workinduced musculoskeletal disorders.
Igus: A modular robotic arm
Known for low-friction, maintenance-free plastics for use in bearings and linear slides, specialist manufacturer Igus has developed a multi axis modular joint for humanoid robots and lightweight automation applications.
Robolink, Igus’ do-it-yourself robotic arm, is built around lightweight, maintenance and corrosion free joints, and can rotate and swivel freely. It is configurable with either four degrees of freedom – like a human elbow – or six degrees of freedom, like a human wrist that can twist, as well.
“Previously, you could buy a complete arm, but not the parts you needed to make one yourself,” says Igus product director Justin Leonard.
- Supplied with an angular encoder, Bowden drive cables, a motor block and aluminium, glass fibre and carbon fibre tubing.
- Suitable for lightweight handling or inspection tasks, the Igus robotic arm can be deployed in environments containing hazardous or contaminated materials, or where maintenance is difficult
- Low cost, a typical arm costs £500- £3000, depending on specification
Loop Technology’s Composite Handling and Inspection system
Composites lie at the heart of an increasing number of aerospace and marine products. Boeing’s 787 ‘Dreamliner’ passenger plane, for instance, is the world’s first major airliner to use composite materials for most of its construction, helping it to consume 20% less fuel than the similarly sized Boeing 767.
But composites can be tricky to work with, requiring the ‘ply’ fabric to be laid-up at precise angles in order to achieve maximum strength. Enter Loop Technology’s robotic modular composite lay-up and inspection capability, already in operation for a major global aerospace manufacturer.
“It’s standard ‘off the shelf’ kit, optimised for the application, and with our vision system and a bespoke composite gripper,” says Loop’s technical director, Alun Reece.
- Uses a combination of precision gantry, robotics, vision and automation
- Large glass or carbon composite fabrics can be laid in place at an improved lay up rate over manual deposition methods
- Automated composite inspection fulfils quality verification requirements
Festo: 3D configurable gantries
Driven by toothed-belt or spindle axes, Festo’s 3D mechatronic multi axis modular gantries can be implemented as an individual or complete system solution, delivering maximum rigidity and load capacity for a broad range of applications.
Simpler designs enable optimum integration and reduce installation costs – and when combined with handling and assembly systems, such as gripping or turning capabilities, the range of customised solutions is almost limitless. Standardised interfaces for other drives and motor packages make it easy to extend the basic gantry with third-party applications.
“Specify the individual axes, and you’ve got a perfectly customised, but modular, capability with a much smaller footprint than an equivalent traditional six-axis robotic system,” says Nigel Dawson, Festo’s product marketing manager for handling and positioning.
- With high mechanical rigidity and a sturdy design, it can be used universally for handling light to heavy workpieces or high effective loads, for any movement in 3D space
- Pneumatic and electrical components are freely combinable
- Extensive capabilities with respect to high-precision and/or very heavy workpieces, combined with long strokes
Siemens’ component-based automation
Building communications links between factory-floor devices can be complex and time-consuming. In some cases, it is necessary to program different communication calls for different bus systems, and the programmer has to specify which devices are to communicate with one another during program development.
With Component-Based Automation, these steps are unnecessary. Communication relationships need not be determined until relatively late. The manufacturer of a machine requires no knowledge of which controllers will be interchanging data with it in a plant environment – the interconnection of the inputs and outputs can be done during construction or commissioning.
“It helps to create a ‘black box’ view of flexible manufacturing cells, by integrating them as part of the automation and integration system within the entire plant,” says Brian Holliday, divisional director for industry automation at Siemens.
- Greater application reach, but at lower cost
- A modular machine-based approach to plant floor communication
- A platform on which to capture real-time information, leading to greater control and flexibility