The Gripper Chronicles

Customized Grippers: Components for AI's Next Wave

RGS Automation sees advantages in custom-built over off-the-shelf grippers

We’re entering a wonderful, new age of gripper technology, maybe even a golden age. New visions from new voices with new ideas in gripper technology are blossoming seemingly everywhere. “Hey, Explain Yourself” is a platform for these new voices to share what they are doing—in their own words—with our global audience.

Our warmest welcome to Ulf Hartmann, founder & CEO of RGS Automation, as he “explains” himself
and his newbie gripper company. Ulf, thanks for coming, and good luck.
—the editors

“According to our experience, it is easier for customers to invest in a customized end-effector, which is specifically adapted to their needs, rather than trying to build their system around a standard off-the-shelf gripper.”
—Ulf Hartmann, Founder & CEO, RGS Automation

When we founded RGS Automation at the end of 2016, we could see that within order picking, there was and still is a demand to satisfy with standard solutions, like suction cups and soft grippers.

According to our experience, it is easier for customers to invest in a customized end-effector, which is specifically adapted to their needs, rather than trying to build their system around a standard off-the-shelf gripper.

This is especially true considering that end-effectors are becoming more advanced than just transporting a product from A to B.  Nowadays we are working on much more complex solutions and delegate more and more responsibility to the gripper rather than the robot and other peripherals.

The gripper needs to ensure the correct handling of the product, possibly identify the product, oversee the transport, and make sure the product is not damaged when picking it up or dropping it off.

Quite often we need to retrieve the picked item from a confined space, making it crucial that the gripper has the capability to extend at least one part of itself. It then has to be able to also give accurate feedback of all the tasks performed.

Most of our tools are based on vacuum, and all of them are produced in Spain. We offer our customers the possibility of acquiring the IP for these tools, as we are always developing new tools both for new customers as well as new projects.

Thanks to our experience and know-how, we usually are able to design a tool much faster than a customer could do on their own; and, after several years of having built grippers for a wide range of projects, we can ensure that within a month our customers can have their customized grippers delivered. The best way to understand our modus operandi is to consider us as a highly specialized extension of the customer’s own engineering department.  

What we are currently developing, in addition to these advanced grippers, is what we consider to be the next big automation item. While the current wave of AI and automation is focused on the autonomous picking task—where the gripper, robot and software perform several tasks by themselves—we are focusing on automating the maintenance.

It is our vision that once the spare-parts have been registered and stocked correctly in a factory or warehouse, the robots will be able to perform—with full autonomy—most of the operational maintenance, like changing suction cups, foam pads or picking fingers.

The first steps toward our goal is to offer tools prepared for these automatic changes.

Within the next year, we will also present our Grip-Track products, which, depending on the customer, will allow us to predict the customer’s maintenance needs with never-seen-before accuracy.

Grip-Track will work with any kind of gripper and will be fully retrofittable to any existing as well as to new robot applications. Once installed, our customers can choose what sort of feedback they would like to receive.

Thanks to “smart” software, we will be able to find bugs in the programming, see how the performance of the machines is developing, if there are any variations in the material received, and, as the cherry on the cake, we will be able to predict the maintenance needs of the entire application. Not only for the gripper, but for the entire system, including sensors, cylinders, and the robot, etc.

RGS Automation will then be able to not only make an analysis of the operational result from the past, but also offer our customers a series of factual recommendations for ongoing operations. We will be able to recommend which supplier of spare parts will be the most adequate, and maybe even more importantly, be able to forecast the cost of ownership of an operation with never-seen-before accuracy.  

What we see in general is a need to be able to get real-time and real-life information for handling products from inside a distribution center or factory. If it is the handling cost for a single bag of chips or a full box of toys, our customers need to know exactly how much it costs for them to handle these different products and to eliminate estimates in their financial controlling.

One of the main reasons why we founded RGS was to redefine the possibilities of gripping. Both in quality as well as technical solutions. We constantly challenge the status quo of how grippers are designed and manufactured.

Our prototypes exceed by far the existing standard of build-quality and are still able to be delivered in the shortest lead times on the market.

In order to accomplish this, we analyzed—at the moment we founded our enterprise—which European city would be able to give us the best mix of high standard suppliers, a broad industry mix to choose from, and the best infrastructure and connectivity to the world’s most important markets.

We found that Barcelona had the best mix of all of them. The highly skilled workforce embedded in a well-connected metropolis has given us the chance to deliver our advanced solutions within five working days all over the globe. We were recognized by the local business community with a “2018 Movers & Shakers Business Award” for innovation.  

Our next step, when thinking about the strategic positioning of our company, was to be at the heart of the global robotics community. We found this to be Boston, and thanks to one of our customers, we were welcomed into the core of Boston’s robotics enclave: MassRobotics.

It is with great pride and joy that we can continue to choose the best of everything, be it components, locations for our offices, to people to work with in order to engineer and build the best solutions for our customers—while also remaining close to our roots in western Sweden—where we are constantly reminded of our humble beginnings and the reason why we strive to be exceptionally good at what we do.

Soon, we will turn our focus to the east and will start our expansion to Asia.

Thank you.
—Ulf Hartmann