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Grippers: Robots Aren’t Much Without Them

Who are the gripper-meisters? What are they mastering now…and why?

In an interview with SCHUNK’s managing director of R&D Dr. Markus Glück (See: Part 2 of this 2-part series, Grippers: Robots for Robots), he notes that the company readily sees the convergence of sensors and AI taking place at the gripper. “We assume it will be much more a case of machine learning opening up new possibilities for autonomous gripping process optimization.”

With thirty-five years of industrial gripper tech under its belt, plus a new lineup of cobot grippers that copped the prestigious 2017 Hermes Awardfor best industrial technology, SCHUNK and Herr Dr. Glück seem poised for a big move into AI, and maybe getting their hands on another Hermes Award for pulling it off (See: Part 2 of this 2-part series, Grippers: Robots for Robots).

If the four-member German law firm ever decided to merge their individual talents, resources and R&D together—maybe even acquiring a couple of newbie AI firms in the process—they could well make for a mighty powerful gripper juggernaut. …Hey, stranger things have happened.

Overall, look for Germany to make a strong run in the quest for smart gripper dominance.

Then too, there’s ample room for outliers as well. For example, Kinova Robotics, the Canadian maker of robot arms—best known for their use as assistive devices for the disabled—is now thinking hard about industrial opportunities for its service robot platforms. 

Keith Blanchet, head of innovation at Kinova is looking toward logistics and other industries, although “there are no trials that we are able to discuss publicly,” he said.

As a mobility device, the arm and gripper sit atop a Husky UGV from Clearpath Robotics for what Blanchet considers a good match for “any mobile manipulation scenario running off battery or any applications with tight space constraints. We also have great success in applications for inspection and maintenance, as well as test applications, due to the adaptability of the platform.”

The underactuated fingers on the sleek-looking Kinova gripper operate smoothly, reaching out and firmly grasping almost any object. Pour in a bit of bin-picking AI and the Kinova gripper might well be ready for productive shifts on an e-commerce line.

Due east of Kinova, another Canadian firm, Robotiq, has an elegant-looking, finely engineered lineup of adaptive grippers, including two-finger and three-finger grippers, that have gained lots of industry attention since its founding in 2008.

The cool thing about Robotiq is that it’s always engineering new tech into its lineup. A vision system two years ago, force torque sensors, and even performance-monitoring software; and soon maybe even haptics, if one of the company’s co-founders, Vincent Duchaine, has anything to say about it. His recent paper says it all: Why Tactile Intelligence Is the Future of Robotic Grasping (See: Part 2 of this 2-part series, Grippers: Robots for Robots). All this nurturing and tweaking of their product line begs the question: Is an AI add-on component next? A thought maybe all the more plausible with nearby Montreal and Toronto being white-hot AI hubs.

An inkling about the future of e-commerce and smart grippers was on display at MODEX this year. RightHand Robotics (started in 2014) showed off its software and RightPick intelligent gripper, all the while setting a world record at the show by bin picking a random 131,072 pieces.

Is that not Amazon perfect!? If not Jeff Bezos himself, someone else with mega bin-picking aspirations must be eyeing the RightHand gang for acquisition.

RightHand has “developed a ‘hybrid gripper’ that uses robotic fingers and a suction cup to pick up and place anything from pill bottles to packaged food items; the system uses 3D computer vision and embedded sensors to see and feel what it’s doing. But the company’s real calling card is its software, which includes machine-learning algorithms that help the robot adapt to new objects and situations.”

Sooner than anyone thinks, the day will arrive when no one cares how many robots a country has deployed per 10,000 workers; it’ll all be about how many “smart” robots a country has deployed per 10,000 workers. All that “smartness” will be a huge differentiator for production and productivity. And all that “smartness” might well be resident in a “smart” gripper.

 

So who’s in contention for the crown? Here’s the current list; others are soon to climb aboard.

Active8 Robots (UK)
Makers of their own custom grippers/EOATs…but also resells multiple brands – from dual grippers to vacuum sticks to a five-fingered hand.

Barrett Technology (US)
Makers of the Barrett Hand: A three-fingered programmable gripper/grasper with the dexterity to secure target objects of different sizes, shapes, and orientations. Low weight and highly compact, it is totally self-contained, and integrates with most any robot arm.

Chanto Air Hydraulics (Taiwan)
Chanto makes low-cost pneumatic parallel, angular, and air grippers for all types and sizes of robots including cobots.

On Robot (Denmark)
Makers of electric grippers for cobots that are designed for and are plug compatible with robot arms from Universal Robots. On Robot also makes a dual gripper, which consists of two independent grippers on a single frame.  All configurations of the On Robot grippers are controlled from Universal Robots software. Universal Robots is the largest cobot manufacturer in the world with 20,000 cobots deployed globally.

QB Robotics (Italy)
Makers of the “qbhand”, which is a five-fingered gripper based on soft-robotics technology. The qbhand is adaptable and can grasp different objects without any change in the control action.

RightHand Robotics (US)
Makers of the recently released RightPick gripper, which combines a vacuum stick with three fingers…and machine learning. Considered a breakout product, investor and former Googler, Andy Rubin, says of RightPick: “For the first time, affordable industrial robots can grasp things they have never seen before.”  

Robotiq (Canada)
Canadian gripper manufacturer since 2008. International supplier of grippers, cameras, vision systems and sensors for Universal Robots cobots as well as other industrial robots

Sake Robotics (US)
Makers of a cobot gripper called EZGripper, which offers under-actuated parallel gripping; has a universal mount so that it can be attached to a variety of robotic arms and can pick up both thin and bulky objects. Full position and torque control enable picking up objects with very gentle force or a very firm grip.

Scape Technologies (Denmark)
Makers of specially designed bin-picking grippers that utilize both suction and two-finger gripper, plus a 3D scanner vision system using a proprietary algorithm.  CEO Søren Bøving Anderson says Scape has solved the entire bin-picking process.

Schunk (Germany)
Schunk  renamed their line of grippers earmarked for cobots as “co-act” grippers. The new HRC grippers, Co-act Gripper JL1, EGP, EGN and WSG were presented for the first time in live applications at the Automatica 2016 show and have been selling them ever since. In 2017, Schunk won the  Hermes Award for best technology.

Schmalz (Germany)
This large Germany-based provider of all things vacuum-related has been providing vacuum sticks and other pneumatic grasping devices for robots for many years, and for cobots since they first hit the market.

Shadow Hand (UK)
Shadow Robot has been providing complex robotic hands and prosthetics since 1987. It has developed a wide range of products, some of which are appropriate to be the end-of-arm tool on cobots. Shadow’s Smart Grasping System with torque sensing has stored intelligence to know what it’s grasping as it is approaching it, and chooses the correct grasp as a result of that foreknowledge. The system is compatible with all Shadow Hands for all major brands of cobots.

Soft Robotics (US)
Soft Robotics is a FANUC integrator and developer of soft-fingered sensitive grasping systems. Their adaptive, plug and play, air-actuated, soft elastomeric end effectors enable novel industrial applications on all types of robots and cobots.

Weiss Robotics (Germany)
Weiss Robotics’ servo-electric GRIPKIT-E and smart pneumatic GRIPKIT are easily mounted on Universal Robots (UR) robot arms. Their URCAPS plug-in integrates into UR’s Polyscope software system. Weiss also offers a wide range of gripping systems, and tactile and force torque sensing devices.

Zimmer Group (Germany)
Zimmer offers a wide range of products for the fields of handling technology, linear technology, and industrial and soft close damping technology. Most of their products and accessories have been adapted to work on Universal Robots robot arms as well as other cobots.

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