What next for the all-important, business end of every robot…the gripper?
Are grippers getting a mind of their own?
Advances in technology, the rise of the cobot, human-robot safety concerns, and questing after the “Smart Factory” are having profound effects on gripper tech for both manufacturing and logistics.
Advanced chips, 3D vision, haptics, new materials and designs, predictive data analytics, machine learning, and miniaturization are headed towards robot grippers in a big way.
Is Mother Nature to blame?
Mother Nature endowed human hands with capabilities and a feedback system to the brain that go way beyond creating a tool just for survival. Humans took that great gift and for millennia have been using it to one-up each other.
Fully 25 percent of the brain’s motor functions in the cerebral cortex are devoted exclusively to the hands. Each hand’s 29 major bones, 34 muscles, 123 ligaments, and 48 nerves are capable of biomechanical feats way beyond a hand’s size, weight and physical structure.
A recent Swedish study on tactile perception has shown that the human finger can discriminate between surfaces patterned with ridges as small as 13 nanometers (a red blood cell is 8 nanometers).
Of course, Mother Nature isn’t silly enough to let the brain and hand carry on by themselves. She throws another organ, the eyes, into the fray. Hand-eye coordination is what makes a recent Guinness Book World Record holder able to simultaneously juggle three Rubik’s Cubes with his hands while his fingers deftly solve each Rubik’s puzzle.
In some respects, throughout all this feedback action, it’s almost as if the arm, as magnificent as it is, acts only as a carrier of the hand and as a conduit of the feedback process.
If a robot was similarly endowed with such capabilities, even in a small way, where on the robot would such capabilities be best installed? Probably not on a robot’s arms. For best effect, the gripper appears to be the most likely place.
That is precisely what seems to be happening in the world of industrial robotics: grippers are getting smarter. Whoa! “Smart” grippers!
3D vision, haptics, new materials and designs, predictive data analytics, machine learning, and miniaturization are headed towards robot grippers.
And with good reason. If the “smart factory” is to evolve and establish “smart manufacturing”, it will need “smart tools” to make it all happen. Same goes for smart logistics.
Forecasts contend that smart manufacturing will increase “production capacity up to 20% while lowering material consumption rates by 4%.”
With a conversion to intelligent manufacturing tools, the ongoing slippage of global productivity would get a major boost and add trillions in GDP .
Sadly, today’s robots just aren’t “smart” enough for “smart manufacturing”.
Moreover, if this incipient evolution to “smart grippers” is indeed on the grow, what will the major manufacturers of robots do about it? Will they begin to manufacture “smart grippers” on their own; will they partner up with the best gripper tech providers around; or will they go on a feeding frenzy and buy out the best gripper tech providers around?
If history is any guide, the feeding frenzy seems the most likely course of action.
Then too, what will China do being the world’s largest buyer of robots as well as the hungriest for smart factories? Midea may well get its shopping bag out again.
What country in its right mind is going to allow increases in “production capacity up to 20% while lowering material consumption rates by 4%” to slip on by them?
Please join us for an interesting journey into smart grippers.