This week, dozens of robotics engineers, system integrators and various manufacturing professionals from across the world are gathering at the 2019 Robotiq User Conference in Quebec City to develop new skills for deploying collaborative robots in finishing, sanding, and machine tending tasks. Engineering.com is here too, trying out firsthand Robotiq’s new application kits in a variety of workshop sessions built around Universal Robots UR-5 cobots and Robotiq end effectors, accessories and software.
Everyone but the luckiest in the manufacturing industry knows that quality labor is hard to find these days. It’s true in North America and across the globe. The reasons why are complex, but it’s a fact that holds true for engineers and tradespeople and also for machine operators, assemblers or line workers.
Image courtesy of IFR
The skills gap and associated manufacturing labor shortages are likely a contributing factor in the rapid growth in deployments of industrial robots and cobots as manufacturers leverage flexible automation for basic processes like sanding, finishing and machine tending. However, this is easier said than done. “In order to start from a manual task or a manual process and transfer it to an automated process, there is an application complexity gap,” explained Robotiq CTO Jean-Pierre Jobin. “The big issue is not the robot. The big issue is not the tooling. The big issue is putting everything together, and for the end user or even the partners for people who are doing that for the first or the second time, it's still quite complex to understand each and every bit of the puzzle.”
Finishing, Machine Tending and External TCP Application Kits on Display
Robotiq is a robot end effector and accessories company which develops solutions which target a specific pain point for manufacturers that use robots: starting production can be a long, expensive and painful process. The company’s products are designed to help users take a lean approach to robotics, reducing waste in the design, integration and operation of robotic work cells. The new application kits take aim at this problem, too.
“Initially, the interest in cobots was more technology driven. Now, it's much more solution driven,” said Samuel Bouchard, Robotiq CEO and Cofounder. “People care less about the technology and the novelty aspect of it, and really just want something that works and is easier. So, when we talk about making things easier, everybody is thinking about the programming, and that's one big thing. But, before that, at the design level, choosing which components to put together, choosing the layout of the robot itself, etc., etc. There is already a lot of complexity there. We believe that by bottling a more complete solution, we are going to be able to remove the barriers for many manufactures that use cobots.”
For example, Jobin explained the process of putting together a machine tending solution without something like the company’s application kit: “They would have to choose the right gripper and install it correctly, but before that they would have had to find a force sensing solution, such as our Force Copilot, or find their own force control loop in order to detect the parts and be able to adjust to the variability of the parts or the variability of the position of the chuck into the machine. Then there's other elements that could be needed in the future such as interaction with the machine as well.”
The company’s application kits are designed to turn an arduous process of design, integration, and programming into a plug-and-play, turnkey solution. Unlike past years of the RUC event which were based around a 24-hour hack-a-thon, this year’s event revolves around technical workshops focused on Sanding, Assembly, CNC machine tending and quality control machine tending. On day one of the event, I participated in the sanding and assembly workshops.
In the workshops, Robotiq application experts demonstrated Robotiq and Universal Robots technology and features which made these applications simple and easy to program. For example, using the e-Series integrated force torque sensor and the Robotiq UR+ Caps nodes for path programming, a series of linear paths across a curved surface such as the one in the image above can be programmed using only six points. A compound curve, such as a quarter-sphere as in a rounded corner, can be programmed in nine points. One of the workshops, based on Quality Control Machine Tending, allowed attendees to work with Robotiq's Wrist Camera and the EPick gripper, which uses an integrated pump to create suction gripping without a vacuum line.
Programming the tasks, using a combination of the stock UR HMI as well as various Robotiq additions such as Active Drive, was simple. Of course, programming in Universal Robots proprietary scripting language is also possible.
One engineer I spoke to commented that he missed the hack-a-thon experience from last year's RUC because it presented more of a challenge. However, I think that for many of the RUC’s attendees, especially those who don't spend their day-to-day jobs programming robots, the workshop format is more valuable and informative, as it gives everyone a chance to try out the new products and features, such as the finishing copilot, force copilot and external TCP options.
The application kits fully integrate with the Universal Robots ecosystem. “Universal Robots is probably the biggest cobot provider in the world, and it gives us some flexibility and some software functions in which we can control the force. With the new e-Series robots, a force torque sensor is embedded at the wrist. So, for both the Sanding and the Machine Tending Kits, we are using the Force Torque Sensor, we're adding software capabilities over that hardware design in order to fully use the capabilities of the UR hardware.”
Online Learning and Training Content on the Robotiq E-Learning Platform
In addition to the application kits, the company is also launching an online learning platform to offer on-demand training for Robotiq products and solutions. “We’re trying to close the gap between the people who want to automate and all the knowledge that they don't have,” explained Bouchard. “We call it the application gap, and we can close it from both ends. We can have technology that is easier to use, but we can also have people that are better trained to use it.”
Robotiq is planning to build on the feedback of users to gradually build more content on the platform for the specific areas of interest.
Currently, the platform is focused on delivering training for grippers, Force Copilot, Finishing Copilot, Wrist Camera and Insights, the company’s production monitoring software tool for Universal Robots. In the coming months, the platform will grow to offer training for the new application kits.
“We want to give the tools and knowledge to our users so that they can do it themselves,” said Annie Giguère, Director of Product Management and Marketing. “At first, the content we’re launching is focused on how to use our current products, but we have big things planned for the coming weeks.” According to the company, this includes content tied to the application kits as well as the lean robotics methodology.
Giguère described how the platform is useful not just during integrations, but throughout the journey of robotic deployment. For example, users might check out the platform to learn more about a potential application before taking on the project.
This move toward accessible online training is similar to Universal Robots’ 2017 launch of UR Academy, where anyone can take free online training courses for programming and operating UR cobots.
Looking Forward to Next Year’s RUC
The Robotiq User Conference is one of my personal favorite robotics events of the year, and it’s exciting to see how the event continues to grow and change. While many corporate events in the manufacturing industry focus on features and figures and lack hands-on experiences, Robotiq is one company that focuses their event on what engineers in the industrial robotics market really love to do: get up close and personal with a robot and get something running.
For more information about lean robotics, visit the Robotiq website.
This article is sponsored by Robotiq. All opinions are my own.