New RIA Article: The Intricacies of Industrial Robot Design

February 11, 2013

In a new RIA article, Bennett Brumson looks at how application influences the interplay of design and software architecture for industrial robots. He talks with industry pros about how the needs of the user influence design — and how that will affect the future of industrial robots.

Robot Design, Integrated Controls and Software Architectures of Industrial Robots
by Bennett Brumson

The software architecture of industrial robots, the “brains” of an automated work cell, enables the robot to perform assigned tasks quickly, repeatedly and accurately.

“Robotics are all about the requirements of an application, such as reach, speed, payload, inertia, joint rotation and performance. Robots look different because they can be used for many different applications,” says Claude Dinsmoor, Material Handling General Manager at FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, Michigan). “Software and controls generally have a baseline architecture but have a built-in unique architecture on top of that aimed at an application.”

As computing power increases and software becomes more sophisticated, robot design architectures evolve to keep pace while maintaining robotics’ inherent flexibility.

Read the full article at Robotics Online. Want to learn more about robot architecture? Sign up for RIA’s free webinar — “Robot Design, Integrated Controls & Software Architectures of Industrial Robots” on Feb. 28 at 12 noon EST. And don’t forget to leave your thoughts on our website at the end of the article!


Machine Vision for Robot Guidance

June 7, 2012

by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association
Posted 06/04/2012

Robot using vision for small part handling or assembly, courtesy FANUC Robotics America Corp.Without a vision guidance system, robots would be blind, unable to present itself to parts. The increased power of vision guidance systems eliminate the need for expensive fixtures that often must be removed or modified when manufacturers introduce new products or parts.

“The biggest change in the past five years is how vision-guided robotic systems are used and how these systems can automatically generate new frames and new tools. Increased accuracy of vision guidance systems provides for increased robotic accuracy,” says Steve Prehn, Vision Product Manager at FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, Michigan).

Seeing Accurately
More powerful and accurate cameras are a boon to end-users of industrial robotics. “Vision guidance systems are able to capture very accurate three-dimensional locations with just one camera,” says Doug Erlemann, Business Development Manager with Baumer Ltd. (Southington, Connecticut). Erlemann sees more accurate software, more rugged equipment and cameras with features that alleviate lighting problems. “Cameras with automatic gain are more accurate and robust. Vision guidance systems take into account more than just vision calculations and robot calculations, but are tied together in the overall system.”

Erlemann speaks of how increased accuracy of robotic vision guidance systems facilitates welding applications. “For very fine applications such as aircraft welds, the guidance system must be perfect. Software can run a welding bead to within 10 microns. In welding applications, 10 microns is very accurate.” Typical welding applications require accuracy to within plus or minus a millimeter or two says Erlemann, but some high-end aircraft demands near-perfect welds.

Screen image of a 2-D vision system in a packing application, courtesy Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc.Likewise, Brian Carpenter, Software Engineer with Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc. (Wixom, Michigan) sees more accurate vision guidance systems for robotics. “Recently, more single camera three-dimensional systems are available. Resolution and accuracy improvements to stereoscopic systems have increased and do not require calibration and can accommodate different working distance.”

Stereoscopic vision guidance systems allow more precise depth measurement. Camera systems will be capable of locating objects as well as track and predict their location while moving, Carpenter says. “Tracking will allow for faster, more responsive tracking.”

Prehn says vision guidance systems are utilized by end-users as a feedback device for generating very accurate frames and tools. “Robot-mounted cameras and the images they generate refine an object’s position through triangulation, providing for tremendous accuracies. Robots operating within six degrees of freedom are a perfect match with three-dimensional vision-guided solutions.”

Prehn goes on to say, “Robust locational systems have the flexibility to quickly adapt to new parts as they are presented to the robot and provide accurate results to have them engage with new parts. Increased processing power allows integrators to go after markets that would be too difficult otherwise.”

Assembly applications on the micro and nano-levels are among the new markets for robotics served by enhancements to vision guidance systems. “Guidance systems accurately locate very small objects or zoom in to validate positions very precisely. When looking at very small fields of view, resolution goes to the micron range. End-users use vision guidance systems to validate and correct for positional inaccuracies over the robot’s working area,” says Prehn.

Charles Ridley, Material Handling Service Manager with PAR Systems Inc. (Shoreview, Minnesota) also talks about the role of robotic vision guidance systems in micro-assembly applications. “The challenges with micro-assembly are similar to other robotic vision applications. Ensuring that the robot chosen for the application has the repeatability and accuracy to handle the tolerances that come with a micro application is key. The vision guidance system must have a higher resolution.”

Calibrated Guidance

Vision guidance systems require calibration with the robot to ensure proper positioning when that robot performs its tasks, says Greg Garmann, Technology Advancement Manager with Yaskawa America Inc.’s Motoman Robotics Division (Miamisburg, Ohio). “Calibrating multiple camera systems between the robotic space and the vision space so that the robot can understand what the vision camera sees is important. Many applications require variable focal lengths and end-users want automatic focus to determine the depth or distance the guidance camera is from objects.”

Vision-enabled robots at Automate 2011, courtesy Comau RoboticsEnd-users must recalibrate the vision system occasionally, says Garmann. “When the focus is changed, that also changes the field of view and the calibration of the camera system to the robot. End-users want automatic focus so the guidance system can understand different focal lengths.”

Calibration issues are important to end-users of Comau Robotics’ systems (Southfield, Michigan) says Process Technology Director, Joe Cyrek. “With advancements in computing power, systems allow for robot guidance in six degrees of freedom with one camera and cable without calibration. That advancement is significant.” Cyrek adds, “End-users want no calibration and simplicity in vision guidance systems. A single camera, cable, a simple interface without the need for calibration equals increased mean time between failures and decreased mean time to recovery, and fast set up.”

Algorithms and their application into robot guidance solution have changed the perception of robot guidance from “complicated” and “avoid at all costs” to “simple” and “find more ways to use it,” says Cyrek.

Calibration of robotic vision guidance systems is also on the mind of Nicholas Hunt, Automotive Technology Support Group Manager at ABB Inc. (Auburn Hills, Michigan). “I see more light with structured wavefronts coming of age for three-dimensional surface scanning applications. The result requires processing massive amounts of data very quickly. New processors provide the necessary speed to fit the demands of production throughput.” Hunts stresses the need for good calibration between the robot tool center point and the camera, or calibration between the camera and the work cell. “Vision system calibration issues might not be evident until weeks later.”

FANUC’s Prehn sums up the importance of proper calibration. “If mistakes are made in calibrating the camera system or applying positions relative to where the camera finds the object, the integrator can get into trouble.” Taking advantage of training courses offered by robot manufacturers or the Robotic Industries Association (RIA, Ann Arbor, Michigan) in vision guidance systems is a good way to avoid calibration pitfalls.

“Lighting, Lighting, Lighting”
Proper lighting is crucial for guidance systems to function properly and consistently. “Vision has always been about lighting and lensing, and guidance is no exception. Maintaining nominal lighting, whether it be raster Robot with gripper and vision guidance system ready for work, courtesy Applied Robotics Inc.lighting or structured lighting, is key to consistently reporting part position to the robot,” says Henry Loos, Controls and Applications Engineer with Applied Robotics Inc. (Glenville, New York). “Do not skimp on high quality lighting and use high quality lenses.”

ABB’s Nick Hunt says, “In machine vision for robotic guidance, the mantra should be ‘lighting, lighting, lighting.’ While debugging a system, some integrators spend too much time looking at the application or the processing of the information. Integrators should pay more attention to the lighting and focal lengths of the camera.”

When setting up a robotic guidance vision system, lights should be arranged to cast diffused illumination rather than direct light, Hunt suggests. “Machine vision applications should not use direct lighting, but should diffuse lighting with light boxes, light-emitting diode (LED) ring lights or other form of structured light.” Hunt says structured lighting is easier to apply than in the recent past. “Suppliers have stepped up to make simple LED ring lights easy to implement on today’s guidance cameras. The benefits of structured LED lighting in robotic machine vision applications are quicker, lowering integration costs while minimizing the effects of inconsistent ambient light.”

Lighting issues are best addressed in the early planning phase of a work cell to save time, effort and money, Hunt says. “Ambient lighting is very important. Integrators should not underestimate how much difficulty end-users might run into if lighting issues are not well thought out. Vision guidance systems are easier and less expensive to implement than in the past with simple LED ring lights.”

Lighting equipment degrades slowly through time, cautions Ridley. “Lighting characteristics change over time, presenting the biggest stumbling blocks to consistent vision operation.” Similarly Carpenter of Kawasaki Robotics says, “Lighting changes over time, even if LED lights. The intensity of the light changes over years so end-users must budget for making changes to lighting systems or have someone on staff who plans for that.”

2, 2.5, 3-D
Robotic vision guidance systems scan objects in two or three dimensions. Unless the application requires three-dimensional vision guidance, integrators favor using two-dimensional systems. “Get the simplest vision guidance system that meets the needs of the application. If the application only needs 2.5-dimensional guidance, end-users should not bother investing in a three-dimensional system,” advises Cyrek.

“Vision guided robotics systems matured in the two-dimensional arena first,” says Adil Shafi, President of ADVENOVATION Inc. (Rochester Hills, Michigan). “Three dimensional solutions have evolved steadily over the past decade most notably when directed at individual objects with reduced calibration, when the geometry of the part is feature-rich or highly repeatable. This trend will continue to grow as lighting, computing power and algorithms improve. Expect more bin picking solutions in the next decade.”

Three-dimensional guidance systems are being increasingly adopted by end-users due to growing reliability at a lower cost. “Single camera 3D systems are becoming popular due to resolution and accuracy improvements. Single camera three-dimensional systems are great because they do not require as difficult calibration as stereoscopic systems and can accommodate different working distances,” says Carpenter.

Prehn also anticipates more 3D guidance systems in robotic work cells. “Integrators have been doing three-dimensional guidance for quite some time. As guidance technology advances, end-users are able to leverage guidance systems to greater accuracy.” Increased processing power of vision systems and robot controllers allows vision-guided robots to enter new markets, Prehn says.

Watching and Learning
Integrators, robot end-users, teachers, students, newcomers and experts, can learn about vision-guided robotics through a free webinar hosted by RIA and Shafi on Thursday, June 7 at 12:00 PM EDT. The Robots: Vision Guidance Technology (2D) webinar will cover basic concepts, good applications, product examples, flexible tooling, hard tooling, vacuum, vision and other related topics. “I will show application videos and a PowerPoint presentation to provide a background of two-dimensional vision guidance applications,” says Shafi. “The webinar is balanced for experts as well as those who have never used robots before, and everyone in between.”

RIA webinars typically attract 400 viewers from around the world comprised of end-users, integrators, component providers, teachers, students and market analysis professionals. “I design webinars to be easy enough for people new to the industry to understand. I build on this foundation to show new trends and expert perspectives. We are assisted by a panel of industry experts who answer questions and present varied perspectives.”

On Track
As vision guidance systems become more powerful and more compact, they will routinely incorporate tracking and traceability functions, says Erlemann. “The automotive sector will eventually go the way of pharmacy applications, where each pill and bottle is tracked through the manufacturing process. The automotive industry will track each door panel and each part of the panel with individual serial numbers, to track where all parts are put together.”

Tracking and traceability are good for failure analysis, says Erlemann. “When a particular car model is seen as a lemon, the guidance system helps track individual panels or parts. Pharmaceutical applications are required by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations to track each part. The automotive industry will move towards that in the next five years.”

Seeing Guidance in Action
Robot makers, end-users and integrators will show off vision guidance systems and other robotic equipment at Automate 2013. The Automate trade show and conference is collocated with ProMat in Chicago January 21-24, 2013 and will feature robot vision guidance systems. “Comau will once again bring our three-dimensional vision system in a user interactive demonstration of its simplicity and flexibility. Last year’s putt-putt golf ball retrieving robot was a crowd favorite,” recalled Joe Cyrek.

Originally posted on Robotics Online.


New Applications for Mobile Robots

April 6, 2012

by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association
Originally posted 04/05/2012

Mobility promises to be the next frontier in flexible robotics. While fixed robots will always have a place in manufacturing, augmenting traditional robots with mobile robots promises additional flexibility to end-users in new applications. These applications include medical and surgical uses, personal assistance, security, warehouse and distribution applications, as well as ocean and space exploration.

“We see increased interest in mobile robotics across all industries. The ability of one mobile robot to service several locations and perform a greatly expanded range of tasks offers a great appeal for specialized applications,” says Corey Ryan, Medical Account Manager at KUKA Robotics Corp. (Shelby Township, Michigan).

Autonomous mobile robot on the job, courtesy Adept Technology Inc.Mobile Apps
Mobile robots are proliferating says Rush LaSelle, Vice President and General Manager with Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California). “In the industrial space, mobile robots are redefining the playing field for autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) in that modern mobile platforms are capable of operating in areas without requiring alterations or investment into existing infrastructure. Mobile robots overcome a historical impediment of AGVs, their inability to dynamically reroute themselves. Mobile robots are outfitted with advanced sensory and enhanced intelligence systems.”

Reduced costs enable deploying both large and small fleets of vehicles in warehouse distribution and line-side logistics applications, LaSelle adds.

Mobile robots can be particularly useful in painting and de-painting applications, says Erik Nieves, Director of Technology in the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America Inc. (Miamisburg, Ohio). “Mobility is a force multiplier for robots and I see that in de-painting very large structures such as C-130 aircraft. Two fixed robots cannot de-paint an entire aircraft between them because they cannot reach everywhere.” More than two fixed robots constitutes too much hardware with very little throughput. “Each robot is painting a little piece then sit idle, parked more than moving,” says Nieves.

Nieves suggests that rather than adding additional fixed robots around the aircraft, end-users needs a way to have two robots deal with an entire aircraft. “To de-paint an entire aircraft with two robots, those two robots need to move.” Putting the robots on servo tracks or a gantry is unfeasible due to aircraft’s geometry. “Putting two seven-axis robots on mobile platforms and driving them around the aircraft” is a better solution, Nieves says.

Mobile robot working on aircraft wing, courtesy Southwest Research InstituteLikewise, Paul Hvass, Senior Research Engineer with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI, San Antonio, Texas) says mobile robots facilitate cost-effective paint removal from large aircraft. “The motivation behind the development of our Metrology-Referenced Roving Accurate Manipulator (MR ROAM) was to demonstrate high-accuracy, industrial-grade mobile manipulation for very large workspaces, an enabling capability for applications like aircraft paint stripping. SwRI has a 25-year history of developing, deploying, and supporting custom robots for fighter jet paint stripping and other large scale applications.”

Hvass goes on to say, “To economically strip paint from larger planes, mobile automation is needed. In the future, we envision mobile robots developed for large-scale tasks including aerospace, off-shore, and road, bridge, and building construction. These robots will initially undertake light-duty tasks such as painting, cleaning, and inspection before moving on to heavier-duty tasks as mobile robotic technology matures,” Hvass concludes.

Medical/Surgical Applications
Corey Ryan talks about potential uses of mobile robotics in medical and other life sciences applications. “Medical applications are always a growing field with huge untapped applications like drug delivery, or the development of mobile treatment systems for specialized equipment.”

People and mobile robots working collaboratively, courtesy RMT Robotics Ltd.Autonomous mobile robots (AMR) can play a role in assisting doctors in surgical procedures, says, Bill Torrens, Director of Sales and Marketing with RMT Robotics Ltd. (Grimsby, Ontario, Canada). “AMR technology is applied in surgical applications. Based on inputs, the robot arm assists the surgeon to perform a task. Path-planning algorithms move the robot autonomously.”

Sean Thompson, Applications Engineer at MICROMO (Clearwater, Florida) sees an increase use of robotics for automated prosthesis fabrication. “Minimizing motor size helps make prostheses more related to the natural human form. That comes down to applying power to build prostheses that more closely emulates the body’s natural capabilities.”

Danger Seeker
Mobile robots can access areas dangerous to humans, says, Andrew Goldenberg, President of Engineering Services Inc. (ESI, Toronto, Ontario, Canada). “Mobile robots are used to reach inaccessible areas such as nuclear power plants. Mobile robotics are very useful in nuclear environments with high levels of radiation, particularly during a disaster or threat of a disaster.”

Goldenberg goes on to say, “Some companies are using robotics underwater while others want to develop robotics for military applications, shoreline exploration of mines, and for repairing a ship’s structure.” ESI is involved with mobile robots for space exploration, such as rovers remotely moving on Mars.

Mobile robot bristling with sensors on tracks, courtesy Engineering Services Inc.As a caveat, Goldenberg says, “Current robotics are not quite sufficiently designed to withstand high radiation affecting their electronic circuitry. Some attempts to design mobile robotics specifically for use in this environment have been made.”

Wireless communication with mobile robots is still a challenge, says Goldenberg. “If mobile robots go underground or in areas of low connectivity like subway tunnels, control of the robot could be lost.”

Hvass also talks about communication to and from mobile robots. “If the robot communicates with infrastructure over a wireless link, that link is vulnerable due to bandwidth sharing, variable distances between radios, obstructions, and non-deterministic protocols.”

Mobile robots for use in inaccessible areas is also on the mind of Sean Thompson. “We see more interest in undersea robotics with smaller non-tethered robots used by research facilities. Aerial robotics tends to go either way, smaller platforms and larger platforms, depending on the mission. Camera packages have gotten smaller which allow aerial robots to roam at lower altitudes in shorter distances on smaller aircraft. These remote-controlled aircraft are collecting highly-detailed and accurate video.”

Thompson speaks of other military applications of mobile robotics. “Troopers could carry heavier loads with robotic pack dogs and exoskeletons. This technology is different from replacing a service dog but will be commonplace in five to 10 years.”

LaSelle also sees mobile robotics utilized for patrol and monitoring applications. “Another key expansion of mobile robotics has been in monitoring, security and patrolling. Patrolling applications provide users with the ability to monitor intrusion, thermal and other environmental conditions. A key area of activity has been the monitoring and patrol of vacant properties as well as warehousing spaces.” This increased ability is due to the reliability and low costs attributed to autonomous vehicle patrol capabilities, LaSelle says.

Thermal monitoring is of special interest to Internet server farms and other sensitive electronic or mechatronic systems. Water ingress is also commonly monitored by way of mobile robotics, LaSelle notes.

Mobile robots are finding their way into other non-industrial applications. “The reduced cost of deployment and ownership mobile robots have extended their reach into non-factory applications. The current generation of smart vehicles is leading hospitals, laboratories, and some offices to employ mobile robots to alleviate the use of skilled labor for mundane transport tasks.”

Continuing, LaSelle adds, “Mobility is already the norm in service applications and this sector is primed for tremendous growth. Service robotics is expected to overshadow the industrial robot sector in a matter of a few years. Adept believes mobile robots will be an exciting area in coming years,” reports LaSelle.

Mobility=Lean
The vision of truly lean manufacturing is being realized through mobile robotics says Torrens. “Mobile robotics connect islands of automation. The last frontier of lean manufacturing facilitates the connection between manufacturing work cells. Mobile robots are now used for transporting materials from donation areas and taking these raw materials to a work cell.”

Torrens says mobile robotics provides a much higher level of flexibility for manufacturers. “For example, a manufacturing facility normally delivers a bin of 100 parts for a machine to work on. This is an example of batch processing, not lean manufacturing. Lean manufacturing embraces a piece-work philosophy, or a smaller batch philosophy. If taking one piece at a time to a machine, manufacturers have more flexibility with robotic transport between manufacturing cells. That approach is lean manufacturing as originally intended.”

Torrens believes “mobile robots have finally achieved the goals of what the factory of the future was supposed to look like. The machines were in place but the transport logistic was not.” Mobile robotics provides that logistical support, argues Torrens. “To realize lean manufacturing, robots must be highly intelligent and able to autonomously deliver parts from any random origin to any random destination. Mobile robot technology up to this point has been unable to deliver materials in a just-in-time way.”

LaSelle anticipates mobile robotics serving the ends of lean manufacturing through processing of optimal batch sizes in warehouse and palletizing applications. “Adept sees the combination of mobility and manipulation as a powerful combination as evident in the increasing demand for case-picking applications. Companies want to move smaller batch sizes throughout their facilities.” End-users want to move less than a full pallet from a warehouse to a production line, concludes LaSelle.

“Companies look for solutions to pick cases or parts individually within a warehouse as compared to pulling a full rack. As this trend continues, expect to see more demand for systems encompassing mobility, manipulation, and vision. Given the rate of technological advancement and drive for smaller batch sizes in manufacturing, we will see mobile robots become a staple in a large cross section of manufacturing within the next six to seven years,” foresees LaSelle.

Autonomous Locomotion
Genuine independent mobility is necessary for robotics to add significant value to manufacturing says Erik Nieves. “Mobility moves robots from being machines to production partners. The robot has to move to the work but if the robot is bolted to the floor and has no work before that robot, the robot is adding zero value to the production process.” Bringing a mobile robot to where production is rather than bringing production to a fixed robot is the philosophical underpinning of mobile robotics, Nieves says.

Any mobile platform must address issues relating to power, navigation, and calibration, says Nieves. “Instead of mobile robots tethered to a source of power through an umbilical, the robot will dock to a power source when reaching a point of interest, to recharge while working.” On-board power simply keeps the robot mobile during transit.

Nieves turns his attention to navigation, or “How the robot gets from A to B autonomously. Using simultaneous localization and mapping, the mobile robot can go from one station to the next largely on its own with without many changes to the facility. To change the mobile robot’s path, [a number of guidance] labels are put somewhere else,” describes Nieves.

Calibration, the final element in Nieves’ approach, is a measure of how close the robot gets to it intended destination. “The robot must calibrate itself to the machine in front of it every time it arrives at one. Calibration is done by some means, such as touching off on three points or using a vision sensor to allow the robot to determine its location.”

Kiva Systems’ (North Reading, Massachusetts) automated warehouse system is an example of mobile robots quickly and efficiently fulfilling customers’ orders. The robot-based system impressed on-line retail giant Amazon.com (Seattle, Washington) enough to acquire Kiva in March 2012.

Going Mobile
As with any new, cutting-edge technology, mobile robotics has yet to become the norm in manufacturing. “In heavy or unusual payload applications, mobile robotic platforms are becoming increasingly common along with a great deal of interest in small mobile platforms. Given the current level of technology already used in mobile platforms, these products will likely become very common within the next five to 10 years,” says Corey Ryan.

To do so, the robotics industry will need to continue educating end-users on the potential of mobile robotics. For more information on service robots, check out the 2011 feature article on Robotics Online: Service Robots and their Rapid Rise in Multiple Markets.

To read the original posting, click here.


New Trends in Robot and Controller Design

March 8, 2012

by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association
Posted 03/06/2012

Screen image of work cell safety monitoring system, courtesy Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc.Without a controller, industrial robots would not be able to perform their application tasks. Controllers contain software giving robots the intelligence to perform complex tasks and provide a means for the robot to interact with the physical environment. Advances in controller design facilitate collaborative robotics, the ability of robots to work in direct interaction with people.

Proposed changes to ANSI/RIA R15.06 robot safety standards guidelines reflect the trend towards collaborative robotics and enable “robotification,” applying robotics into new applications.
“I see a trend towards the robot controller being more of a controller of the whole manufacturing process. With increased processing power, integrators are able to add more items into the robot controller,” says Erik Carrier, Product Engineering Manager with Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc. (Wixom, Michigan). “Traditionally, the robot was doing just one task or running one program. Now, controllers have the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously.”

With advancements in controllers, their integration into a work cell becomes easier, says Claude Dinsmoor, General Manager of the Material Handling Segment with FANUC Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Robot transferring exhaust manifolds within a dual check safety zone, courtesy FANUC Robotics America Corp.Hills, Michigan). “Integration makes robots easier to apply, more agile to deal with the increasing demands for robust automation and contributes to the ongoing decline in the cost of robotic systems when compared to traditional fixed automation systems.”

Dinsmoor sees this trend continuing. “We see this trend accelerating with an increasing focus on ease of use of the robot software, increased capability of the robot to do functions normally done by external devices. We also see the dawn of learning robots, machines that learn from experience in executing an application to optimize their performance to become faster, more precise, and more flexible in production.”

More Power, Smaller Package
Controllers have been downsized, a trend that players in the robotics industry expect to continue. “The size of controllers are getting smaller and I expect to see more of that trend in the next five years. Like other electronic devices, robot controllers will have fewer components inside due to consolidation,” says Joseph Campbell, Vice President of ABB Inc.’s (Auburn Hills, Michigan) Robot Products Group. “End-users can now mount smaller controllers above a robot or embed it into the robot. Keeping the footprint small and flexible gives integrators options on where to locate the controller.” Compact robot controllers are very common in the electronic industry, Campbell says.

Likewise, James Shimano, Product Manager with Precise Automation Inc. (San Jose, California) anticipates the persistent shrinking of robot controllers. “I see a continual drive to shrink controllers. In the past, controller cabinets were large, bulky and unwieldy that needed harnessing to the robot. System integrators needed to find a place for the controller and their harnesses while keeping them safe. Controller placement was a problem in an industrial factory, where large and dangerous objects are moving around.”

Shimano notes smaller controllers are necessary for successful “robotification” of research laboratories and life science installations. “In the last three years, the trend towards smaller tabletop controllers and robots in pharmaceuticals, life sciences, laboratories, solar panel assembly and semiconductors has grown. Integrated controllers are smaller in both their computing section, containing the processor and memory, but also the Shield-free laboratory workstation, courtesy Labcyte Inc. and Precise Automation Inc.amplifiers.” Incorporating the amplifier and the controls within the robot’s structure into a very small package eliminates extra cabinets, making controllers more compact, a necessity for tabletop laboratory robotics, Shimano concludes.

Miniaturization facilitates robotic safety in non-industrial applications, Shimano says. “Integrated controllers can create safer robots for use in non-factory settings without safety shields. These controllers are easier to use by people who are not engineers, assembly technicians or scientists who want to use robotics in a collaborative fashion.”

Shrinking controllers is also on the mind of Michael Bomya, President of Nachi Robotic Systems Inc. (Novi, Michigan). “The trend towards miniaturization of robot controllers will continue to the point where integrating the controller into the robot’s arm will be simple and practical. Integrating the controller into the robot arm is a requirement to make a humanoid robot.” Robot controllers will become sufficiently small for placement within the manipulator to advance mobile robots, Bomya says.

Collaborative Robotics
More powerful and miniaturized robot controllers facilitate “collaborative robotics,” enabling people and robots to work in relatively close collaboration within a workspace. “I see new controller platforms allowing for collaborative applications. The robot is only one portion of collaborative work cells and other devices must facilitate it,” says, Carrier. “Proposed revisions to the (R15.06) robot safety standard will help move technology in the direction of collaborative robots.”

Robot manufacturers and integrators are working towards collaborative robotics and some robotic equipment is currently capable of meeting proposed revisions to the R15.06 safety standard, says Charles Ridley, PaR Systems Inc.’s (Shoreview, Minnesota) Material Handling Service Manager. “To meet the new robot safety standard, safety circuits must be dual channeled and dually monitored, with several processors redundantly monitoring each safety circuit. The robot program limits the work envelope, monitors location and speed of the robot by dual processors.”

Ridley illustrates his point by citing a palletizing application. “The robot goes to a certain point within its work envelope to pick up slip-sheets. When slip-sheets need replenishing, safety inputs allow the operator to replenish them without stopping the robot. The robot continues to palletize but safety inputs restrict the robot from going where the operators is.” Ridley adds that controller software recognizes when the palletizing work cell needs more slip-sheets as well as preventing the robot from moving into the area an operator is within the robot’s work envelope.Compact robot controller, courtesy ABB Inc.

Jeff Fryman, Director of Standards Development at the Robotic Industries Association (RIA, Ann Arbor, Michigan) has a similar take as Ridley on the role of collaborative robotics. “The robot is in automatic mode during collaborative operations and the robot stops for the collaborative operation. Collaboration operation allows work cells designed without fixtures and simply drives the robot to a starting point.” The operator then commands the robot to execute a pre-programed operation.

Fryman recalls a demonstration of hand-guided collaborative operation at the Automate trade show in March 2011. “At Automate 2011, a simulation of a water-jet cutting work cell was demonstrated. A 150-kg capacity robot stopped and waited for the operator to maneuverer it within the work cell. The operator would then exit the collaborative work space and return the robot to its fully automatic mode, where the robot would cut out a predesigned pattern without the use of fixtures,” Fryman said. “Grabbing a robot by a joystick on the wrist plate and driving it around is impressive.”

Continuing, Fryman says, “Collaborative robots can assist the operator by doing the heavy lifting so the person can focus on the thought processes. Controller designs have built-in safety-rated features to assure the robot will do exactly what it is told to do and stop when it knows it did not.”

While the robot controller and its software makes the work cell more predictable, human nature remains unpredictable. “The difficulty with collaborative operation is that human operators do not always perform in a Graphical representation of a collaborative robotic system, courtesy Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America Inc.controlled or reliable fashion so safeguarding can be a challenge. The revised safety standard will require a risk assessment to address the potential hazards of a particular installation,” says Chris Anderson, Welding Technology Leader with the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America Inc. (Miamisburg, Ohio).

Brandon Rohrer, Principal Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, New Mexico) agrees with Anderson’s assessment. “I am watching the trend of enabling robots to behave well in unpredictable, unexpected, and poorly modeled environments. Traditional assembly line robots work really well as long as the lighting is just right and everything coming down the conveyor belt is oriented the same way. If circumstances deviate too much from design conditions, the system chokes really fast. New developments in controllers are pushing back those limits on how structured the environment must be.”

The notion of ridding work cells of hard stops intrigues John D’Silva, Marketing Manager with Siemens Industry Inc. (Norcross, Georgia). “The revised R15.06 robot safety standard could possibly do away with hard stop requirements in new robots, with better control of restricted space. Collaborative robotics is a way of the future because both the robot and operator can work in harmony to increase production. Reliable safety is provided by the safety controller during operation, setup and commissioning phases of the work cell.”

Both Fryman and D’Silva pointed out that proposed revisions to R15.06 relating to shield-free work cells will be applied to new robotic systems and retrofitting current systems will not be an option for end-users.

Robotification
Advancements in controllers will help lead robotics into new applications. “Controller technology continues to open new applications for robots, especially in non-traditional areas, such as where either people or custom machines are normally applied, such as surface finishing, on-the-fly weight measurement, and precision assembly,” says Dinsmoor.

Similarly, John Boutsikaris, Senior Vice President of Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California), says, “Traditional applications will continue to expand with new gripper technology and continuous performance improvements. Fusion of sensory inputs including sonar, scanning lasers, three-dimensional vision systems and more, on the robot controller continue to expand the applications for robots into more flexible, dynamic Robotic work cell motion controller, courtesy Adept Technology Inc.environments.”

As controllers become more powerful, they will become more capable of managing other equipment and facets of the work cell, says Amy Peters, Business Planning Manager with Rockwell Automation Inc. (Milwaukee, Wisconsin). “End-users want tighter integration with the logic platforms, built-in kinematics, and the ability to control other aspects of a manufacturing plant.”

Joe Campbell believes “More intelligent controllers and enhanced safety circuitry allow robots to work in closer proximity to people and opens many new applications. I see growing opportunities where multiple robots in a work cell function in a very coordinated fashion.” Campbell also anticipates robots working outdoors. “I see manufacturing outside and robots aboard ships performing maintenance and repair of ship components as well as on oil rigs with controllers able to withstand the weather.”

Motoman’s Greg Garmann, Software and Controls Technology Leader says, “Robot controllers have all the tools required to jump into almost any new application. The only restraints are the imagination of programing engineers and the complexity of the task.”