25 Jun 2024

Rapid developments in robotic automation

Lab automation

The engineering automation sector has been coping with the accelerating pace of innovation for many years. Beyond general progress, we also experience step-changes that can be triggered by the alignment of technological trends or a major global event like the recent pandemic. With disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence entering the mainstream, there are exciting times ahead.  Steve Sands, Technical Consultant at Festo GB explains further to Smart Machines & Factories (SMF).

Steve Sands, Technical Consultant at Festo GB explained to SMF, that having spoken to its customers, it’s clear they are experiencing several change drivers that are affecting their business in multiple ways. These include labour shortages in fields and factories, rising energy costs and the need for higher flexibility and productivity. The result is increasing opportunities for automation and robotics.

The desire for increased automation is not just localised says Sands. Global technology giants are investing heavily in robotics. He highlights, for example, that Google intends to leverage its machine learning technologies into robotics. It has also invested in its own household service robotics company, Everyday Robots, with some very interesting mobile robot concepts for homes, offices, and factories. He adds that Amazon and Tesla are also pushing into robotic technology. Both have internal automation needs but see many opportunities beyond their own warehouses and factories. Tesla has already revealed its Optimus humanoid robot, literally making big strides in a short space of time. These new entrants into the robotics sector are bound to be disruptive and further drive the pace of change.

Sands explains that pneumatics and fluid power in general still have an important role in automation and are key to delivering new robotic solutions: “Typically lightweight and compact, pneumatics offer fast movements coupled with high force density. The Festo concept Cobot shows how pneumatic rotary drives can be installed in individual joints enabling robotic axis to be combined to deliver speed and significant weight savings. Such robots can be programmed for a degree of accuracy that suits most applications, with a great combination of speed, precision, and repeatability either operating independently in applications like lab automation or working alongside humans in Cobot mode.”

Getting to grips

Sands highlights that Festo has several robotic development projects in train, looking at ultra-lightweight handling systems, reducing moving masses and making it safer for automated assistance devices to work alongside humans. One of these strands has been exploring the use of controlled pneumatics. This, he says, has evolved into a concept cobot that was demonstrated at Hannover Fair and offered some very interesting features which are now being evaluated in industrial applications.

These development concepts don’t just demonstrate an interesting diversification of drive technology, they also incorporate improved – and that means simplified – programming and teaching modes, and more flexible end-effectors. Traditionally, vacuum generated by pumps or venturi nozzles with contact through flexible cups or porous plates has been used for most pick and place applications, with specialist Bernoulli non-contact grippers being deployed for very delicate substrates. The alternative, explains Sands, 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 according to Sands: “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. Festo has demonstrated several solutions for flexible grippers inspired by nature that wrap around the product more effectively. These range from flexible gripper fingers that mount onto standard mechanical grippers to wholly ‘soft’ devices resembling a gecko’s tongue or octopus’s tentacle.”

Design solutions

The key to successful robot design says Sands, lies in the ability to combine axes easily and select the appropriate motors and motion controllers to provide the required speed, force, and precision for the desired task.

He says that software to make cartesian and gantry robot 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 Industry 4.0 vision comes into play explains Sands: “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.”

Life savers

Sands also highlights how 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.

He explains: “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 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.

In over thirty years in automation, Sands says he has 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 can 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.”

Looking forward

Sands concludes that industrial automation has changed significantly in the last few years, but pneumatic and electric drives technology is keeping pace and will play an important role in diversifying robotic applications. Specialists like Festo are continuously working to make automation more flexible, precise and energy efficient than ever. In parallel, online selection tools are making it quicker to find the right solution for individual applications, accelerating design development to deliver improved robotic solutions.

Company info: Festo