In a recent PMMI UnPACKed podcast, “Getting Along (and Ahead) with Robots,” David Greenfield, Director of Content for Packaging World sister publication Automation World, shared that one of the big robotic automation trends in the Consumer Packaged Goods market is advances in end-of-arm tooling (EOAT).
“Vendors have made big leaps in increasing the agility and intelligence at the end of the robot arm over the past several years,” Greenfield advised. “And this is particularly crucial in applications such as food and beverage, where things like tomatoes or baked goods can’t be grabbed with force. And the human hand has been the preferred method for handling these kinds of items because we can adjust our grip based on feedback between the hand and the brain to tell us what’s happening when we grip an object. And based on that feedback, we readjust or hold the item differently as we handle it and move it from one location to the next.
“And now that can be done using sensors in the end effector and feeding that information back into the robot controller, so it can readjust its grip before and while making a motion based on input from the sensors in the end-of-arm tooling.”
Among the EOATs designed to handle delicate food applications is the mGrip modular gripping system from Soft Robotics, which has been updated with new capabilities to pick smaller products as well as flat products. The system is now also IP69K-rated for high-pressure washdown environments, specifically protein and dairy food applications. Says the company, these applications have lagged behind other food segments due to the inherent variability and stringent hygienic requirements that often require food-contact surfaces to be cleaned-in-place with high-pressure solutions.
According to Soft Robotics, the newly released mGrip adapters and accessory interface give integrators greater flexibility, allowing them to rapidly prototype and build custom, production-grade tooling by combining Soft Robotics’ patented technology with other technologies, such as part presence sensors or suction cups.
New to the mGrip are its compact finger modules, which enable tighter grip spacing—down to 20 mm—to improve picking performance for smaller items. These smaller, lighter finger modules result in lower-mass tools, which Soft Robotics says leaves more robot payload for product handling, permits faster rates, and causes less system wear over time. Also, as mentioned, the new system is designed to pick flat items—specifically meat and poultry patties—using new angle-tipped fingers that safely lift and grasp thin products from flat surfaces without damage.
Says Daniel Woodbridge, Mechanical Design Engineer at industrial technology partner JMP Solutions, “With one of their IP69K grippers, we are able to easily and reliably handle products of varying shapes and sizes while vastly reducing the number of parts and surfaces that would be required by a traditional mechanical gripper design. From raw meat to fresh buns, these tools have proven themselves to be the answer on many food handling projects.”
Also for food applications is piab’s new piSOFTGRIP® 50-2 material handling system, which has two gripping fingers and a sealed vacuum cavity, all in one piece, making it immune to dust and allowing the gripping force to be easily adjusted and controlled by the applied vacuum level. The new, soft gripper, made from direct food-contact silicone material, can grip objects with a width of up to 50 mm.
According to the company, the food-detectable gripper enables the food/chocolate industry to extend automated food handling to include a wider range of products. “Delicate food/chocolate items can be handled without risk of being spoiled due to crushing,” says piab. “Wash-down fitting options as well as a sealed vacuum cavity make it easy to clean and keep functioning, even in challenging environments.”
The gripping tool is said to be as easy to control and install as a suction cup and can be used for multi-mode applications by putting several piSOFTGRIP 50-2 EOATs in rows or other grid structures to support the desired picks.
EOAT tooling changeover made simple
Another EOAT trend highlighted by Greenfield is the innovation that has been done around ease of changeover for tooling. “This used to be a really time-consuming, labor-intensive process where workers would unbolt one tool and then bolt on another to process a different batch of goods. And that could involve switching of the robot programming for the robot to be able to recognize and operate properly with a new tool,” says Greenfield. “But now, these end-of-arm tooling changes are much easier.”
For example, ATI Industrial Automation has introduced a robotic tool changing and storage solution, the QC-7. According to the company, the system is designed for flexibility, enabling multiple robot end-effectors to be used in one operation and allowing for quick exchange of tooling for maintenance and repair. With the QC-7, grippers, 3D scanners, and other packaging tools can be deployed in the same cycle, streamlining automated packaging tasks.
The QC-7 robotic tool changer features a low stack height and mounts directly to ISO 9409-1-31.5-4-M5 robot wrists. It is pneumatically-actuated and features no-touch locking technology and a patented fail-safe locking mechanism for a secure connection between the master and tool. According to ATI, the design integrates lock/unlock sensors without the need for an additional interface plate. The tool changer handles payloads to 16 kg and is compatible with a variety of industrial and collaborative robot models. It is also compatible with ATI’s modular tool stands and has an optional tool storage hook to make robot programming easy.
In another EOAT innovation—this one to make gripper integration easier for robotics users—Zimmer Group has introduced a Robot Starter Box, the startZ, which includes all the necessary components for setup in a small, “smartly designed” package. Included in the starter box are the gripper, communication module, operating software, any required tools, and all of the connecting elements.
|Watch a video of Zimmer's startZ.|
Says Zimmer, once the box is unpacked, it only takes a few minutes to connect the gripper to the robot using the interface plate provided. The ready-to-connect smart communication module is placed in the robot controller and connected using the robot-specific plug-and-play connectors. The connecting cable is then either internally or externally routed around the robot to the gripper, after which the gripper is ready to run. The gripping profile is set up to suit the task at hand using a standard PC. Once the hardware has been assembled, the operator connects the PC to the smart communication module and then uses the intuitive guideZ user wizard software to set the gripper parameters.
Looking one step further upstream in EOAT technology, manufacturing automation platform (MAP) Vention has partnered with OnRobot, a producer of tools for cobot applications, to combine Vention’s online-first manufacturing automation platform with OnRobot’s library of plug-and-play EOATs.
Says Vention, its MAP provides manufacturers with the engineering software and modular hardware they need to design, automate, order, and deploy factory equipment in a single digital environment. “With the addition of OnRobot’s plug-and-play tools for collaborative and light industrial robots, manufacturing professionals can focus on scaling production with greater flexibility and efficiency,” Vention explains.
Offerings include solutions for grippers, including parallel, flexible, magnetic, and vacuum, vision cameras, sanding tools, screwdriving tools, and more.
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