System Delivers Faster Transfer Between Mobile Robots and Stationary Conveyors

I am happy to see energy and innovation devoted to the new mobile robot market space. Much of the work grows from Denmark. I’ve never visited (a deficiency I will assuredly correct), but my interaction with the country was through agriculture. Then first one then another robot company sprang up in place of cows.

This is a story of a company called ROEQ (roe-eck) working with another company called Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) whom I have written about before here.

I attended a press conference recently wherein ROEQ described its launch of GuardCom. This application leverages robust sensor technology for instant communication between ROEQ’s top rollers – conveyors on top of mobile robots – and stationary conveyors. This new solution replaces cumbersome, Wi-Fi-dependent 3rd party setups that often cause delays and mismanagement in the transfer of goods from mobile robots onto conveyors and vice versa. ROEQ is now also releasing top rollers with adjustable height for Mobile Industrial Robots’ models, MiR250, MiR500 and MiR1000.

Wi-Fi instability is a common workplace challenge. In material handling applications with devices communicating through complicated setups passing data around between mobile robots, 3rd party receiving stations and conveyors, an intermittent Wi-Fi network is prone to cause costly errors and downtime. 

The solution consists of two products: GuardCom installed on the stationary conveyor station, and GuardCom Connect installed on the autonomous mobile robot.

Multiple GuardCom Connects can work with the same GuardCom and vice versa. GuardCom is compatible with all stationary conveyor stations, replacing 3rd party wireless devices. 

“With GuardCom we are delivering a safe, reliable, and cost-efficient solution to eliminate wait times, errors, and accidents at cargo transfer stations,” says Michael Ejstrup Hansen, Managing Director at ROEQ. “GuardCom is truly the missing link that enables a completely seamless material handling cycle, resulting in shorter system integration time with less hassle and engineering costs.”

Once the mobile robot has arrived at the conveyor, GuardCom signals to the stationary conveyor station that the robot is in place and ready to receive or deliver the packages. The same signal is simultaneously sent to the robot letting it know that the stationary conveyor is ready. Once the transfer task is completed, both units receive a signal that it is safe for the robot to leave.

The GuardCom is integrated into the stationary system via only a handful of cabled connections. The handshake process between the GuardCom and the mobile robot is completely wireless and based on proven and robust sensor technologies. To further prevent misplaced or dangling packages, GuardCom includes a physical guard installed on the conveyor station that goes up to prevent packages from rolling off and dropping to the floor when the autonomous mobile robot is not ready to receive. An alarm alerts the operator to come onsite to remedy the situation – or for the conveyor to roll backwards automatically.

Hartfiel Automation, a U.S. distributor of ROEQ products sees the GuardCom system as a shift in the way robots are deployed. “In the past, significant engineering development and 3rd party hardware was required to manage the logic of moving material from a stationary conveyor onto a mobile robot, which added substantial cost and time to deployments,” says Scott Albrecht, VP of Advanced Control Technologies at Hartfiel Automation. “With the ROEQ GuardCom system, these challenges are minimized or eliminated resulting in lower risk, lower cost, and faster deployment for these users.”

GuardCom is not the only new product now released by the Danish company, that also introduces the new ROEQ TR500 Auto and TR1000 Auto top roller modules with automatic lifting mechanisms, enabling MiR’s largest robots, the MiR500 and MiR1000 (with 1100 and 2200lbs payload respectively) to pick up and deliver goods at varying heights in the factories without human intervention, which allows them to automatically adjust in a height range of 19.7 – 31.5in (stroke is 9.8in) from floor to rollers. 

“Very often, businesses are not able to maximize automation opportunities in existing facility layouts as the mobile robots need to pick up at one height and deliver in another,” says ROEQ’s Managing Director. “Our new top rollers with the lifting mechanism now make this possible – even for the heaviest of goods.”

ROEQ’s expanded product portfolio now also includes the TR125 Manual 250 and TR125 Auto 250 top rollers compatible with MiR’s most recent robot release, the MiR250. At MiR, Frederik Spangtoft Poulsen, Product Manager at MiR, is looking forward to seeing the new ROEQ products deployed with MiR robots in the field. “We welcome ROEQ’s products into our MiRGo universe, a platform already featuring a significant share of solutions from ROEQ.”

Universal OS Transforms Robots into Intelligent Collaborators

  • Qobotix coordinates automation between manufacturers’ existing robots to boost productivity, lower costs; 
  • Enables flexibility to quickly adapt manufacturing processes while allowing for social distancing to keep workers safe

During the week of RIA’s Robotic Week festivities comes word of this innovative approach toward making collaborative robots (cobots) even more collaborative (collaborative2?). Unfortunately, they found it necessary to work in the buzzword of the month—AI—but still a move toward inching the industry forward.

Qobotix has introduced its universal AI operating system to transform cobots into intelligent coworkers on the manufacturing floor following two years of R&D, including active installations at major auto manufacturers. The idea is to make existing robots smarter and self-learning. 

The Qobotix OS platform coordinates industrial automation between manufacturers’ robotic capabilities. Powered by proprietary AI, machine vision, and kinematics, the Qobotix OS’s agnostic plug and play technology enables intelligent factory applications to perform complex tasks that were considered only possible by humans. The company also offers complete robot stations, which are ready for immediate deployment on manufacturing lines with the flexibility to be deployed rapidly for different tasks. 

Qobotix Cloud provides a factory management platform with a centralized repository of work intelligence that can be shared between machines.

One of Qobotix’s central innovations is that it enables robots to learn independently – humans can train robots by interacting with them and robots can learn from other robots. This capacity enables robots to be programmed in hours or days rather than weeks. Companies can deploy their robots faster with greater flexibility to perform functions with accelerated human-machine collaboration, enabling humans to take on other roles.

Qobotix’s introduction comes right as the Covid-19 pandemic causes companies to re-examine their reliance on offshore production seeking more flexible, localized manufacturing options. Factories can now use cobots to more easily switch between projects quickly, produce at a high volume for a shorter time, while keeping workers safe through social distancing. 

Qobotix is the brainchild of Avi Reichental, a 3D printing pioneer and long-time industry veteran, Egor Korneev, a serial entrepreneur and a pioneer in the field of machine learning and vision systems, and George Votis, the Chairman, CEO and founder of Galt Industries, Inc.

“During our many years involved in industrial manufacturing, we experienced robots that were meant to be collaborative and quickly concluded they were not like that at all – they couldn’t see or hear, and they were very inflexible,” said Reichental. 

The team recognized a gap in the market and decided to develop their own technology with the aim of bringing vision and intelligence to collaborative robots. 

“Our aim is to take robotics out of the late 1990s,” said Qobotix Co-founder and CEO Egor Korneev.


Reichental added, “Qobotix changes the game for manufacturing and services by eliminating time-consuming processes such as programming to significantly lower costs and increase output. This presents a huge opportunity for all manufacturers in their everyday operations.”

“Qobotix offers a strong return on investment by freeing up people for higher level tasks,” said Votis. “With Qobotix, robots can more easily collaborate with each other, and allow manufacturers to deploy production stations within different production lines each day, saving time and costs while boosting productivity.”

The Cobot “Virtual” Expo

Organizations and companies have been exploring how to do a virtual trade show for more than 20 years. I can remember the early efforts…and shudder. However, we now have a “witch’s brew” of pandemic, increasing bandwidth, improved interactive graphics, browser advances such as HTML 5 and more which have coalesced into a good user experience. If they could replicate the hallway conversations and chance meetings, perhaps some travel could be eliminated. But I still prefer being there.

Yesterday robot industry veteran Joe Campbell, who is now sr. manager of applications development with Universal Robots, gave me a tour of the UR Cobot Expo. It is officially concluded, but you can still visit everything except for the chat functions for the next 30 days. And the expo is pretty cool. Pandemic restrictions have forced creativity upon marketers and designers, and most of the events I have attended have been well worth the time. Certainly this one is if you have any interest in exploring this technology area at all.

“The Cobot Expo” offers American manufacturers flexible automation solutions with a rich experience with an extensive range of product news and demonstrations, featuring more than 30 different booths, insightful keynotes, interactive QAs, and live chats with automation experts (these latter are not active now).

As I’ve written before, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that resilient businesses—those that can emerge with plans for growth—can react quickly and decisively to protect workers while keeping business running, adapting processes and product lines, with many manufacturers now increasingly using collaborative robots to make those changes efficiently and cost-effectively.

“The crisis has accelerated the need for flexible automation,” says Campbell. “We’re seeing an uptick in interest for collaborative robots due to social distancing requirements, reshoring to avoid long supply chains, and the need for rapid production line change-overs. The Cobot Expo is a timely opportunity to showcase and discuss how cobots can play a pivotal role in helping manufacturers successfully navigate the pandemic.”

The Cobot Expo is free to attend and is open for anyone with an interest in collaborative robotics (on demand only now). Attendees are invited to visit booths that feature new insights and resources on the most common cobot applications such as machine tending, packaging and palletizing, product inspection, assembly, welding, dispensing, and finishing. Joining this lineup is ActiNav, the world’s first autonomous bin picking kit for machine tending launched by Universal Robots this spring.

For expo visitors wondering how to get started with collaborative robots, numerous keynotes with live QAs will offer insights on critical topics such as how to identify good projects, choosing the right cobot model and peripherals, conducting risk assessment, whether to take a DIY approach or go with an integrator, and much more. The agenda also has presentations on cobot maintenance and programming and the many new ways cobots are quickly being deployed to address the COVID-19 crisis, including area disinfection, the manufacturing of test kits, face shields and ventilators, and in the handling of COVID-19 tests, protecting hospital staff from exposure.

The Cobot Expo is also an opportunity to meet the many UR+ partners presenting the industry’s largest and most comprehensive ecosystem of new products certified to integrate seamlessly with the UR cobots. The rapidly expanding UR+ platform now includes over 250 UR+ components and application kits with more than 400 approved commercial developer companies in the UR+ program.

The UR+ partner booths include: ATI Industrial Automation, Energid, Flexibowl, Flexxbotics, Hexagon, Mircopsi/Nvidia, New Scale Robotics, OnRobot, Piab, Robotiq, Schmalz, Schunk, SMC, Vectis, Vention, VersaBuilt, Visumatic, Wiretank, and Zimmer.

Alongside the UR+ partners will be booths hosted by Association for Advancing Automation (A3) and OEM partners showcasing products powered by UR cobots. The OEM partners include: Columbia Okura/Rocketfarm, Computech, Hirebotics, IRIS, Melton Machine, ONExia, and ProCobots/Easy Robotics.

“With tradeshows and conferences cancelled, we are experiencing phenomenal interest from all industry stakeholders in participating in the Cobot Expo,” says Campbell. “This truly is an extraordinary opportunity for an extraordinary time.”

Collaborative Robots Find New Uses

I learned to program robots and design them into work cells in the mid-80s. For years, I would tell people I was involved with automation and they would exclaim, “Robots!” And I’d say, “Well, yes, those, too.”

Robots for industrial use, and there were few for other uses, over the years got faster, stronger, more accurate, better communicators—but, they were basically the same thing. They moved something from one place to another or performed repetitive (and often dangerous) work such as welding or painting.

The next step toward more usable and user-friendly robots which may develop into more general use sprang from the work on collaborative robots in Denmark. I imagine a greater possibility of use cases as these robots become ever better at working alongside and for people—and not just in industry, but in the home as well.

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, back to the present we have some announcements from two of these cobot manufacturers—OnRobot and Universal Robots.

OnRobot vision-guided robots

OnRobot Launches “Eyes”, a 2.5D Vision System, Bringing Unrivaled Ease-of-Use to Vision-Guided Robotic Applications

OnRobot screwdriver application

OnRobot Launches Complete Plug-and-Play Intelligent Screwdriver for Fast, Easy and Flexible Deployment

Universal Robots Injection Molding application

With the Injection Molding Machine Interface (IMMI), Universal Robots has launched a user-friendly and quick solution for plastics manufacturers to integrate Universal Robots with injection molding machines.

Eyes

OnRobot’s “Eyes” advanced, affordable 2.5D vision adds depth perception and parts recognition for all. Eyes can be flexibly mounted both on the robot wrist or externally, making it ideal for almost any unstructured application in need of vision guidance.

Robotic arms are often tasked with picking items not presented in the same orientation, shape or size. To provide consistent positioning, manufacturers frequently add fixtures, bowl feeders and other hardware, adding cost and complexity to what ends up being rigid applications that lack the ability to easily pick different objects or achieve quick changeover times.

“A significant part of our customer base does not want to be tied to a fixed incoming position of a product they want to pick,” says CEO of OnRobot, Enrico Krog Iversen. “They would love to eliminate complicated, bulky and expensive part feeders and fixtures to achieve this, but until now, vision systems have felt out-of-reach. Our new Eyes vision system changes all that.”

As opposed to other vision systems on the market, Eyes just needs to take a single image for calibration and part recognition and has automatic focus to work at different distances within the same application.

Eyes is ideal for sorting a wide variety of objects or for CNC machine tending with metal parts that are defined by outer shape, as well as many other pick-and-place applications where orientation is important. Eyes also offers depth perception within its affordable and easy-to-deploy 2.5D vision.

“2.5D is rapidly emerging as the perfect technology for vision-guided applications,” says Iversen. “Compared to 2D it adds not only length and width but also height information for the specific part, which is ideal when objects may vary in height or if objects must be stacked.”

Eyes can be easily mounted on the robot wrist or externally, and integrates seamlessly with all leading collaborative and light industrial robot arms through OnRobot’s One System Solution, a unified mechanical and communications interface based on the company’s Quick Changer, now an integrated part of all OnRobot products.

The new vision system directly interfaces with other OnRobot devices making it is very easy to use Eyes together with any of OnRobot’s grippers. With a dual setup, using a dual Quick Changer, the gripper’s tool center point (TCP) can be automatically configured by Eyes, eliminating any potential conflict between different software packages from different tool vendors. The optimal mounting depends on the application. Some of the advantages of having Eyes mounted externally is not having to worry about cables running alongside the robot and the ability to optimize cycle time, as Eyes can take the picture and process this, while the robot is doing another operation.

Screwdriver

The new OnRobot Screwdriver can be deployed and redeployed for different applications in minutes, with built-in smart features—including precise torque and embedded axis control—that simplify programming and drive productivity, quality, and ROI. This provides welcome relief for manufacturers who are eager to automate repetitive, unergonomic, and often inconsistent manual screwdriving processes, but who struggle to integrate and program typical piecemeal screwdriving systems.

Programming the OnRobot Screwdriver is as easy as entering the appropriate screw length and torque value into the user interface that is integrated into the teach pendant of any leading robot. With precise torque control and embedded axis, the OnRobot Screwdriver automatically calculates the speed and force required for consistent, accurate screwdriving. The Screwdriver can detect incorrect screw length, which can help improve overall quality and reduce scrap. With the Screwdriver’s unique “z-axis,” screws are retracted inside the tool and driven automatically once the robot arm moves into position, which reduces robot arm movement and additional programming. Screws up to 35mm long are retracted completely inside the Screwdriver when moving until the screwdriving process is safely initiated, enhancing its collaborative capabilities.

The Screwdriver can handle a wide range of screw sizes and lengths, from M1.6 to M6, and up to 50mm long. With its simple programming and easily exchangeable bit system, the Screwdriver can be quickly changed over to a different screw size, length or product line in minutes, which minimizes downtime and improves productivity.

The Screwdriver includes the following robust and intuitive features:

● Embedded axis for accuracy and easy programming

● Precise torque control from 0.15Nm to 5Nm

● Screw sizes from M1.6 to M6, and up to 50mm long

● Available screw feeders

● ESD safe for electronics assembly

● Mounting via OnRobot Quick Changer

The Screwdriver is compatible with OnRobot’s One System Solution, a platform that provides a unified mechanical and electrical interface between leading robot arms and any OnRobot product. The One System Solution has been newly expanded to include integration with robots from ABB Robotics and Hanwha Precision Machinery. Users of those robots can now also take advantage of the unified mechanical and electrical interface of any OnRobot product, for easier integration and faster ROI.

Injection Molding

Plastics manufacturers are increasingly turning to collaborative robots to tend injection molding machines. With the launch of the new Injection Molding Machine Interface (IMMI), Universal Robots makes the communication between its e-Series cobots and injection molding machines fast and easy. IMMI supports injection molding machines with EUROMAP 67 and SPI AN-146 communication interfaces.

The global market for collaborative robots in the plastics and polymers industry is expected to grow exponentially over the next five years, from $250M in 2020 to $1.5B in 2025. According to BIS Research, 15 percent of all cobot applications in 2020 will be within injection molding, automating tasks such as placing inserts into molds and moving parts through post-mold processes. These are tasks that require high repeatability, complex motions, and demanding angles, making them perfectly suited for the six-axis cobots from Universal Robots (UR). The cobots can be mounted on top or beside an injection molding machine and they can work alongside human operators without safety cages (subject to risk assessment), saving valuable space on the workshop floor.

“Injection molding machines have many inputs and outputs to manage the complexities of the molding process,” says Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development at Universal Robots. “Standardized interfaces allow for ease of integration and exchangeability. With the IMMI, we give the manufacturer the ability to set up, program and control the entire application cycle through the UR cobot’s teach pendant. Combine this with the positioning flexibility and the additional degrees of freedom found in UR cobots compared to traditional cartesian robots, and you have a very powerful solution.”

The IMMI is installed in the UR cobots’ control box in less than ten minutes, providing deep integration with the robot system, including safety functionality, and leveraging the e-Series cobots’ control box expansion port for easy mounting and cable management. An IMMI template for the Universal Robots Polyscope operating system is provided for easy use in the programming tree. IMMI is now available through Universal Robots’ rapidly expanding UR+ platform of products certified to work seamlessly with UR cobots.