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February 2013

Robots Get Better, Faster, Easier, Cheaper

The latest in robotic technology was on display January 21 – 24 at Automate 2013 trade show at Chicago’s McCormick Place Exposition Center. While the outside temperatures in Chicago were frigid (-21°C!) the show floor action was hot with over 150 exhibitors and dozens of working robots. Automate 2013 offered a worldwide selection of robot manufacturers, robots from ABB to Zaytran, from the biggest to the fastest to the most axes. The robotic industry trend of “quicker, faster, cheaper, better” continues and one result is greater robotic adoption by smaller companies and for small batch runs.

Expert Huddles. At convenient locations throughout the trade show floor show organizers setup four booths as informal discussion areas. In those booths an industry expert was scheduled to address a specific key industry issue and also time was allowed for questions and answers. While not a totally novel concept to AUTOMATE their show management people definitely put the concept to best practice. The opening huddle discussion of “How Can we Introduce Automation in Small and Medium Sized Companies?” was of particular interest to several show attendees and that key issue got attention for the huddles. Yes, making it easier and cheaper to use for any company.

The overwhelming impression for me at this year’s show is the continued decline in the adoption cost of robotic automation. Virtually any small or midsize company can easily use these robots to improve their operations. Hardware costs continue to decline and the time required to program the units has been reduced dramatically and the cost of electronics which allow robots to learn human movement also continue to decline.

The reduction in robot prices and their adoption cost has put robotic automation into the hands of smaller companies and for smaller batch runs. The “Expert Huddles” provided a perfect opportunity for prospective users to get answers to their specific questions and for current users to understand what future challenges they may face.

There were a large number of robots in operation and several new ideas on vision systems. Here some of the hardware what was catching the attendees attention.

Big. Heavy lifters have always been a core application for robots eliminating the chance of personal injury caused by heavy lifting and improving speed and accuracy of placement. Today’s users of heavy duty robots have the option of all electric or electrohydraulic operation depending upon the particulars of the user. Some environments favor hydraulics especially high temperature environments while all electrics can be of particular benefit in certain high cleanliness environments.

Fast. To see the fastest robot made check out this great video of Stäuble newest and fastest robot, the TP80 pick and place robot. The TP80 is a true screamer capable of 200 picks per minute. The machine is incredible, it is the Formula 1 of robots, claimed to be the world fastest and to demonstrate its speed they set it up with a contest for the TP80 to compete against show attendees on which can grab a dollar bill faster. Guess who wins the most often.

Dazzling and Nimble. Yaskawa had a couple working robots on display. But their DA20 is a real dazzler. The DA20 is a 13 axis dual arm machine capable of complex operations and to demonstrate its prowess Yaskawa programmed the robot to play blackjack (video) and it looks to me like it would have no problems dealing from the bottom of the deck; banned in Vegas.

Cheap. I’m not too sure if it is the least expensive robot on the show floor but Yaskawa’s MPP3 is a compact, lightweight and easy to program robot and the design lends itself to ease of use and speed of adoption.

Other Technologies on Display. Vision and wireless continue to be key subjects in automation. Several new vision sensors including 3D units were on display and as new generations of products arrive they have improved vision recognition systems and operate faster than prior designs. Companies continue to improve tactile touch with gripping systems lending robots for faster handling of fragile parts.

Ancillary devices on display included automated tool changers, new end of arm welding equipment, specialty packing equipment and material handling equipment. Several software companies were on hand and most all manufacturers have focused on improved efficiency and lower energy consumption.

TG Nelson