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  • 3 Innovative Robotic Assembly Challenges from 2018

    Robotic assembly is challenging, but it's hard to innovate when we're always looking for reliability. The solution to this challenge? More challenges!

    Assembly is a classic application, both for collaborative robots and for traditional industrial robots. But, although robotic assembly is popular, it's not easy. It involves more precision movements than simper tasks like pick and place or machine tending. Also, it often relies on difficult part presentation, fixturing, and detailed positioning.

    Capture d’écran, le 2018-11-16 à 16.02.19USB key assembly at the Robotiq User Conference 2018

    These challenges can lead to a problem when it comes to innovation. Most of us want to set up our robotic cells as quickly as possible with the maximum reliability, which is understandable and certainly achievable. However, sometimes it can mean that we don't try new things in the ways we implement robot assembly — we just go for the tried and tested methods.

    How can we balance the productivity needs of production environments with the need to advance and innovate?

    To solve these challenges we need… another type of challenge!


    How to innovate robotic assembly with challenges

    Of course, lab-based robotics research does explore innovative techniques for robotic assembly, but it often lacks practical application. Once researchers have validated their latest development, they move on to the next thing having never reliably demonstrated how their application can be used by industrial users.

    As a result, there is a disconnect between the innovative assembly techniques in robotics research and the tried-and-tested robotic assembly used in industry.

    Robotic challenges have become increasingly popular to solve this disconnect. And by "challenges" I mean "competitions."


    Why robot challenges?

    There are many robot challenges around the world, the most famous being DARPA, RoboCup and the Amazon Picking Challenge.

    Each challenge has an element of competition to it and focuses on a particular application area. For example, the Amazon Picking Challenge in 2015-2017 challenged participating teams to recognize, grasp, and pack a variety of different objects. Teams worked towards reliable but innovative solutions to this tough bin-picking application. Amazon actually dropped their robotics challenge in 2018, deciding instead to fund research projects through their AMA program, but it contributed a lot to the robotics community in the three years it ran.

    Robot challenges are not just a fun way for research groups to compete with each other. Researchers from the University of Alabama argue that challenges are basically special experiments which allow that "research and integrated development can be pursued in tandem as a catalyst for innovation." Other researchers have argued that challenges are ideal benchmarks for robotics research, as they provide consistent tasks with which to compare the performance of different robotic systems.


    3 robotic assembly challenges from 2018

    2018 was a pretty good year for assembly-based robotics challenges.

    Here are 3 of the best assembly challenges from the year:


    1. Blood-vessel-sized microassembly at ICRA 2018

    In May, one particularly difficult assembly challenge was set at ICRA 2018 (the International Conference on Robotics and Automation).

    There were four challenge areas at the ICRA conference: DJI RoboMaster AI Challenge; Soft Material Robot Challenge, Tidy Up My Room Challenge; and Mobile Microrobotics Challenge.

    Part of the microrobotics area was a Microassembly Challenge. In it, microrobots had to assemble components inside a narrow channel that was only the thickness of a human blood vessel.

    Thankfully, most of us don't have to use robots at such a small scale!


    2. Cobot electronic assembly in 24 hours at RUC 2018

    A more familiar assembly application was seen at our own Robotiq User Conference (RUC 2018) back in September.

    As part of the Tech Challenge, our participants had to assemble promotional kits for a fictional company. This involved a tricky electronic assembly task of assembling a USB drive.


    Unlike many robotics challenges, where the teams have months to develop their solutions, our Tech Challenge participants had just 24 hours to design, integrate, and get their robot cells in operation.


    3. Industrial assembly challenge at the world robot summit

    In October, the World Robot Summit was held in Tokyo, Japan. The event is a combined "challenge and expo" where robot manufacturers come from all around the world to show off their products and compete in a series of challenges.

    The Industrial Assembly Challenge required participants to achieve quick and accurate assembly of products. It involved three distinct phases:

    1. Setting up the task board — the robots had to recognize objects, insert peg-in-hole, and handle a flexible belt.
    2. Kitting the assembly station — the robot had to achieve part recognition and bin picking to set up the workspace.
    3. Assembling the products — the robot had to assemble a complex belt drive with small clearances and a jig-less setup. Extra difficulty was added by the introduction of surprise parts. The addition of the flexible belt drive made this step much trickier than the gear assembly that was used in the same challenge in 2017.

    The challenge had some similarities with our RUC challenge — it was a complex assembly task with various interdependent stages. The biggest differences were that the robots used were different for each team and that they were not (necessarily) collaborative robots.


    How competitions help us to improve robotic assembly

    Challenges and competitions certainly seem to be a good way of moving forward robotic developments while focusing on robust, practical implementation. They include defined tasks, with strict success criteria, which makes teams develop real, working solutions.

    Challenges achieve this improvement in two ways:

    1. They prompt technology improvement

    When an assembly task is too complex for current robotic systems, the only way to achieve it is to make the technology better. By gradually increasing the difficultly of robot challenges year-on-year, the technology has to keep developing. This was demonstrated at this year's World Robot Summit, where the gear assembly from 2017 was replaced by a more challenging flexible belt.


    2. They improve our skills

    The purpose of our RUC Tech Challenge was less about improving the technology and more about improving the skills of our participants. The teams developed invaluable skills which they can now take back to their own assembly applications to improve their production.

    And, after all, isn't improved production the point of assembly robots in the first place?

    Which assembly task would you like to give to a robot? Tell us in the comments below or join the discussion on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or the DoF professional robotics community.

    Watch the RUC Challenge web series on Youtube

    Read more »
  • What's New In Robotics This Week?  16.11.2018

    -UR hires 20+ former RR employees
    -News from RoboticsX, Raytheon, Dexai++
    -Brick-laying bot sets record
    -Brexit and robotics research
    -Automated lyric generator?
    -Five vids for Friday
    -And much more!


    Manufacturing & cobot roundup

       Universal Robots has hired more than 20 former employees of Rethink Robotics ("primarily within engineering and product development roles") and will take over Boston, Mass.-based Rethink’s old office at 27 Wormwood Street., according to The Robot Report.

        German car parts maker ZF Friedrichshafen announced that it is the first company in Germany to use automated drones to transport spare parts around its manufacturing facility. 


    The drone undergoing testing this week.  Credit:  ZF Friedrichshafen

    Via AUVSI:

    A six-motor UAS is being used to conduct the flights. The UAS is capable of carrying up to five kilograms in weight by air (or three kilograms of goods after taking into account the grippers and transport box.)

       RoboticsX opened a new R&D facility for industrial robots in Slovenia, dubbed 'Area X-1"...




       Asian Robotics Review explored the rise of industrial automation giants in China and found that:

    "Far from the grasp of Brussels, EU labor restrictions, contentious neighbors, and prying competitors, KUKA, ABB and Siemens are footloose in a continent full of factories and warehouses, while an appreciative host smooths the way ahead." 

       Raytheon is "pushing the limits of advanced manufacturing" in its radar production facilities...



       South Korea needs to "improve the overall competitiveness of its robotics industry amid growing challenges posed by Chinese rivals," according to a new report from the state-run Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade.  (H/T Yonhap News Agency)

       Successful human-robot collaboration requires lean and flexible manufacturing cell design.  Sometimes manufacturers will require a cell that does not require the human worker to be in attendance at all times.  And in some sets of circumstances, manufacturers may even choose to use a cobot on its own. 

    In a recent installation in an Australian pharmaceutical manufacturing facility, automation specialists Andrew Donald Design Engineering (ADDE) used a cobot from Universal Robots for palletizing although it could have used a traditional, non-collaborative industrial robot for the same task...



    Why?  ADDE explains:

    The decision for using a collaborative robot in this case was that if service is required then an operator can work on one cell whilst the rest of the cell is still operating. There is no need to shut the entire cell down. This application allowed us to have the palletising cells close together, optimising floor space.

       In a fascinating piece for Aerospace Manufacturing ("On the wings of automated freedom"), Professor Phil Webb, the Royal Academy of Engineering Airbus Chair in Aero-Structure Design, Aerospace Integration Research Centre, Cranfield University explored "the challenges involved in human-robot collaborative manufacturing, the kinds of robots involved and how they work, and the future implications for the industry." 

       Progressive Automations released video showing how its linear actuators are made...



       There is an "urgent" need to "prepare work-floor employees for working alongside a new generation of smart robots," according to Josje Verbeeten, managing director and co-owner of Robot Academy.  (H/T Innovation Origins

       Meet Alfred, the cobot sous-chef developed by Dexai Robotics...



    In other cobot and manufacturing reading...



       A one-armed bricklaying-bot from Australian firm Fast Brick Robotics successfully completed building a 180 square metre, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in under three days.  The 'Hadrian X' can lay up to 1,000 bricks per hour, roughly equivalent to the output of two human bricklayers in a day. (H/T Sydney Morning Herald)    


    Credit: Fast Brick Robotics

       With the European Union funding many robotics projects through its Horizon 2020 program and formal Brexit due on March 29, 2019, UK-based robotics researchers and their European colleagues have been wondering what lies ahead for current and future robotics projects.   As details of the UK-EU agreement emerged Wednesday, it became clear that, as Science | Business reported, the Brexit deal "will change but not end UK participation in European research." 

    Capture 2-2

    Firstly, the UK-government has agreed to fund all current projects post-Brexit at the same levels as Horizon 2020. Secondly, from 2020 forward, the UK is expected to enjoy “associate country” status (alongside Switzerland, Norway and 14 other countries already doing so), enabling UK roboticists to continue working on Europe-wide robotics research projects.  

       A pair of Google researchers has created an automated lyric generation machine, with "hilariously garbage" results:

    i'm your big and brave and handsome romeo
    you know my secret secret
    you have my second estate
    you suit your high origin
    you have my cursed youth
    you have my life

    Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, it is not.  Score one for human lyricists this time around.  But for how long?  (MIT Technology Review has more.)

    Further reading:

    • Intelligent robots could prove to be a boon for autism therapies  (Spectrum News)
    • Google closes bipedal robot unit Schaft, staff dispersed (ZDNet)
    • Harvard Engineering Professor Wood Awarded Medal for Work in Robotics  (The Crimson)
    • Before Replacing a Carer with a Robot, We Need to Assess the Pros and Cons  (GovTech)
    • ARM Leads Project to Develop an Armpit-Sniffing Plastic AI Chip  (IEEE Spectrum)

    Check back next week for another roundup the latest robotics news in manufacturing and beyond!   

    Until then, please enjoy... 

    Five vids for Friday

    1.  Chinese state news agency Xinhua unveiled a pair of "AI Synthetic News Anchors" as part of a government program to promote artificial intelligence in the country. (TechXplore has more.)



    2.  Canada's first robotic court greeter underwent testing at the Ottawa County Courthouse in Grand Haven this week.  Dubbed 'CORA' (short for Court-Operated Robotic Assistant and also a nod to Ottawa County’s first female Probate Court judge, the Honorable Cora VandeWater) the bot provides visitors with directions and can be searched via touchscreen for court dockets and FAQs.  (H/T Grand Haven Tribune.) 



    3.  Wageningen University and the Rural Development Administraction Republic of Korea released video of their modular, autonomous orchard robot.  



    4.  Researchers at the University of British Columbia's CARIS lab are working on ways to streamline handovers between humans and robots. 



    5.  A team from Brigham Young University has developed an algorithm that enables a drone to map its own route and fly independently to image an entire city.  Those images are then used to generate stunning 3-D maps of the target. Recently, the team tested their new algorithm in Italian towns that were destroyed by a massive earthquake two years ago.


     Start production faster with Lean Robotics

    Read more »
  • 5 Ways Robotics is Changing the Manufacturing Industry

    The advancement of robotics is something that’s affecting almost every industry, with manufacturing at the fore. When we incorporate robotics into manufacturing processes and factory operation, we could see an improvement in output. This is the result of better efficiency and leads to an increase in revenue.

    Robotics has certainly helped the manufacturing industry carry out several automation processes. One of the most famous examples is that of Ford, which has thousands of robots operating within their assembly lines today.

    If you’re wondering about the many other ways in which robotics is transforming the manufacturing industry, there’s a lot to explore!

    Let’s look at the five ways robotics is evolving the manufacturing industry.

    A robot vacuum cleaner

    1. Handling raw material

    A manufacturing company could be dealing with the handling of hazardous, chemical materials. This could obviously put workers at risk, increasing the dangers of losing valuable human lives and opening up the possibility of lawsuits. This is where robotics steps in, filling in the roles that are just too risky for a human.

    Robots can easily handle dangerous chemicals, radioactive substances, and several other elements without the danger that humans face. With robotics, you can enter programs to ensure precise handling without any mishaps due to human error. Even if the worst happens, you’ll be facing a mechanical repair instead of death or serious injury.

    Robots can also prevent the damage of products stored in warehouses. That’s because they’re less likely to mishandle equipment provided they’re programmed correctly. Mishandling by human workers has cost employers and factory owners a pretty penny in the past. With robotics, such costs are likely to go way down.

    2. Contributing to 24/7 manufacturing operations

    The introduction of robotics also means that operations can go on for a longer time, all day if need be. With the population booming in most parts of the world, the demand for products is only going to go up. To provide supplies for this demand, factories and manufacturing plants have looked towards robotics for enhancing their output capacity and manufacturing time.

    While a human workforce is subject to exhaustion, overwork, lack of motivation, and union laws, robots don’t have any of these issues. When a human becomes overworked, the quality of their work is compromised. This could put them and others in dangerous situations as well as causing financial loss to a manufacturing company.

    On the other hand, robots can easily operate around the clock, provided they get the required maintenance. Fatigue wouldn’t affect them unless a machine needs to be cooled down for an hour or so. Of course, it’s best if humans are still present in a supervisory capacity so they can be sure there’s no malfunctioning.

    3. Creating jobs

    Workers in the manufacturing industry are often not too excited by the prospect of robotics transforming their field of work. The main reason behind this wariness is the fact that machines and robots have taken over numerous workers’ jobs in the past. These include monotonous tasks at the assembly line, precise handling of parts, and accurate operations.

    However, it’s also important that we look on the other side of the job aspect within the manufacturing sector. Robotics may have taken over some jobs, but these would otherwise have gone offshore instead of being assigned to workers in developed countries. The home countries for the robotics manufacturing, though, get the jobs that are actually created by robotics, such as monitoring, supervising, and manual repairs.

    In fact, robots serve to free up workers who can then develop and maximize skills of their interest. That way, they can also develop their skill in areas where companies require manual labor the most. There’s another advantage: workers in developed areas don’t have to remain stuck in underpaid, unskilled labor-intensive jobs. The presence of robots will help them be freed up to move towards more managerial positions or anything else if it strikes their fancy.

    4. Increasing capacity

    The output capacity of the manufacturing industry is said to increase due to the introduction of robotics because robots will help clean spaces, save on all kinds of utilities, and can generate a satisfactory return on investment (ROI) in two years’ time. Check out the Lean Robotics ROI Calculator to find out how long it would take you to pay back your robotic investment.

    Robotics has also helped domestic companies compete with the cheaper offshore companies by reducing the former's costs. Robots will also improve the manufacturing output and enhance the safety in manufacturing sites. All of this comes together to lower overall costs, enhance quality, and thus, increase the profit margin for local companies. Using robotics is thus a way of enhancing the economy for the manufacturing industry as a whole.

    5. Enhancing collaboration

    When it comes to the manufacturing industry, the aspect of collaboration is a highly important one. The manufacturing sector regularly has to collaborate with construction companies, retail companies, and several others. Again, the advancements in robotics can greatly help in revolutionizing the collaboration techniques used with people and other systems. For instance, robots that are equipped with tracking sensors can detect motion and hence collaborate with people. They can even work in isolation from people in places like warehouses.

    Prototyping in the manufacturing industry needs a high level of precision and quality. Getting the robotics aspect into the mix will ensure that you achieve these goals to their maximum possibility. Rapid tooling, prototype and low volume injection molding services China by 3ERP are all made possible in some way through the advancement of robotics. This is because the use of robots has made the development and production of many machines and products much safer, more reliable, and more uniform to boot. It has also enhanced the repeatability of manufacturing processes, which is essential in such projects.

    Eventually, the manufacturing process will become more data-driven, giving robotics yet more space to advance. When this happens, we can expect an even higher productivity, output capacity, and smooth processes in every way. For collaboration, though, there might be a few more steps required before robots can completely assimilate into a manufacturing environment.

    Start production faster with Lean Robotics Read more »

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