Collaborative robots are coming on strong

Among the trends noticeable at PACK EXPO Las Vegas was an increase in the number of suppliers offering something in the collaborative robots category. While for some years now it’s been mostly Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics leading the charge, notable news at the Las Vegas show was that now ABB, FANUC, Yaskawa, Steubli and others have offerings in this category.

Collaborative robots are coming on strong
Collaborative robots are coming on strong

As for Rethink Robotics, they used the Vegas event to announce that a second model, Sawyer, has been added to a lineup that previously included just Baxter. While Baxter is a two-armed robot, Sawyer is a single-arm, high-performance robot created to handle machine tending, circuit board testing, packaging, and other precise tasks that have been difficult to automate with existing robots.

Weighing only 19 kilograms (42 pounds), Sawyer features a 4kg (8.8 lb) payload, with seven degrees of freedom and a 1260mm reach that can maneuver into the tight spaces and varied alignments of work cells designed for humans. Its high resolution force sensing, embedded at each joint, enables Rethink Robotics’ compliant motion control, which allows the robot to “feel” its way into fixtures or machines, even when parts or positions vary. This characteristic enables a repeatability that is unique to the robotics industry, and allows Sawyer to work effectively in semi-structured environments on tasks requiring 0.1mm of tolerance.

Sawyer offers a unique combination of features that distinguish it from other conventional and collaborative robots, including compliant motion control, embedded vision with a built-in Cognex camera and Rethink's Robot Positioning System, a component of the proprietary Intera software platform. Powering both Sawyer and Rethink’s first collaborative robot, Baxter, the Intera system makes deploying the robots far easier than typical industrial robots. While traditional robots typically take an average of 200 hours to program and deploy, Sawyer can be deployed in under two hours and can easily be trained by typical factory technicians – not roboticists.

Sawyer is said to have a lifespan of 35,000 hours of operation. It’s IP54-rated, making it suitable for harsh factory environments. Since its introduction, Sawyer has been field tested extensively at leading manufacturers’ sites around the world, and is currently being deployed on production lines in many of those facilities.

General Electric has been testing Sawyer over the past two months and will deploy their first robot in a GE Lighting plant in Hendersonville, NC. A prime example of true human-robot collaboration, Sawyer will be on a production line positioning parts into a light fixture as a GE employee completes the assembly. The process improves the efficiency of the product line while allowing GE’s employees to handle the more dexterous and cognitive work needed to complete the task.

“The ability to deploy a smart, collaborative robot like Sawyer provides a significant flexibility advantage to our production team, while still meeting our world class quality, precision, and speed standards,” says Kelley Brooks, global advanced manufacturing & engineering leader at GE Lighting. “Utilizing this technology is an integral part our Brilliant Factory initiative to connect all parts of the supply chain from product design, to engineering, to the factory floor and beyond in order to deliver customized LED solutions for our customers.”

Sawyer is also set to be deployed in Steelcase Inc.’s (NYSE: SCS) Grand Rapids, MI, factory, where it will work in tandem with the company’s welding machine. Sawyer will work to pick and place parts in pairs of two, enabling a completely autonomous welding process. The robot’s small footprint, long reach and higher payload capacity make it ideal for the Steelcase team. In addition to handling changes in parts and lines seamlessly, Sawyer’sIP54 rating allows the robot to work in manufacturing environments with liquids and particle hazards present.

“Having already deployed several Baxter robots successfully, we’ve seen the value that collaborative robots bring to the factory floor,” said Edward Vanderbilt, leader of innovation at Steelcase. “These robots are the game-changers of modern manufacturing, and Rethink Robotics is leading the evolving relationship between humans and machines that allow each to do what they do best.”

Collaborative robots will be a featured them at the next edition of The Automation Conference & Expo ( http://www.theautomationconference.com) May 24-25 in Chicago.

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