The Gripper Chronicles

Gripper Tech Evolves…again!

Gripper tech on a growth spurt
The business end of industrial robot arms is in yet another growth spurt. Gripper technology, predominantly tech for cobot grippers, is being poked at from multiple directions, and all that poking is proving to be massively beneficial for both gripper developers and end users alike.

Ninety-nine percent of the growth spurt is taking place in gripper gear for the  under-3kg to 16kg world of cobotics. Even though cobots represent a minuscule 3.8 percent of all industrial robot sales, cobotics is by far the hands-down leader and epicenter of cool tech in all of industrial robotics. The reasons behind it all: The ever-widening variety of gripper tasks and cobot configurations being deployed, plus relatively easy to operate, and the tumbling down of prices for cobot arms. CB Insights puts the average cost at $24,000.

Four grippers to note
There’s seemingly a cobot arm for every pocketbook: A top-of-the-line UR5 (Universal Robots) is $35k, while a wowsy, 7-axis Franka Emika is under $18k. And the ROIs for both are measured in months. That, in turn, has spurred end users, especially SMEs, to take a chance and to do some experimenting. The results have been impressive, which accounts for some of the reasoning behind forecasters predicting massive future sales for cobots, even though the present reality is less than 5 percent of industrial robot sales.

ABI Research has them at $11 billion by 2030; Grand View Research at $10 billion by 2025. The reality of 14,000 cobots sold in 2019 puts them today at under a half billion dollars, which means that cobots will need to jump very high to make the numbers predicted for 2025. Then too, cobots can’t do any work without a gripper, so look for the fortunes of gripper manufacturers to rise or fall accordingly.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are getting into the cobot act as well, with many showing up for work sporting cobot arms and new-look grippers somewhere on their sleek frames.

Artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), sensors, and edge computing, either individually or together, seem to be crawling into grippers to make homes there. It’s early yet, with much of it still working through R&D labs, but some of the results hitting the marketplace are stunning…and very practical.  

End users are playing a major role as well. They are daily bubbling forth with evermore inventive uses for cobots and grippers or challenging R&D labs for solutions. Gripper tech has responded, cranking up a virtuous circle that’s rapidly innovating upon itself and pumping out ever-newer tech, which, in turn, end users are quick to acquire and push into ever-newer deployments.  

There are more than a few exciting new grippers and gripper trends to report on, but here are four outstanding, new-age tech offerings that speak to where gripper tech is headed and why.

Better yet for these four, none are languishing in R&D labs; each is in the marketplace and available to buy.

1. SCHUNK’s condition monitoring system (CMS); 2. New Scale Robotics’ PG-10-20 gripper/caliper; 3. STÖGER screwdriving robot with auto tool change and feed unit; and 4. OnRobot 3FG15 three-finger gripper.



SCHUNK’s condition monitoring system (CMS)
A gripper, owing to its closest-to-part position, is in an ideal place to monitor—and maybe even analyze—the condition of not only the tool in use but also of any possible anomalies taking place in the production process itself. And why not do all that monitoring and analysis directly onboard the gripper…and why not as well have it performed in real time?  

Obviously, any tool that has the built-in capability to monitor and analyze its own operating condition, plus the condition of the work piece, plus the operating condition of the production process, and to rapidly communicate that information—all in real time—is of enormous benefit to overall product quality, the speed and effectiveness of manufacture, and productivity, all of which bear directly on the cost of any manufacturing process.

All of those goodies are resident in SCHUNK’s CMS (condition monitoring system), which elevates SCHUNK to a class of one in the race for smart gripper tech. If the future of manufacturing is Factory 4.0 loaded to the rafters with smart everything, then SCHUNK’s CMS is a critical piece of that connected production.

Interestingly, SCHUNK points out: “There is already an enormous amount of data being generated by the machines and automated systems, smart tools and components found in the factories of manufacturing companies. However, only a very small fraction of this data is actually being used – estimates suggest only about five percent.”

Even at five percent, the data stream produced and shunted off for cloud-based analysis, is still massive, which raises the specter of possible downtime and latency affecting data analysis. So, not only is the representative data just a 5 percent partial picture of what’s going on in a factory—even a connected factory, for that matter—but, additionally, the data is at risk.

SCHUNK’s CMS can be “an early warning of incipient damage, detect deviations in quality, monitor the stability of a production process and ensure consistent quality control at all stages of production and value creation.”

That’s an amazing set of capabilities perfectly in tune for precision manufacturing.


STÖGER Automation’s robot screwdriver and feeder
Technology has given auto-feeding, hand-held screw guns to humans, which has measurably sped up all sorts of fabrication processes. However, screwing things together—even with a screw gun— is still a tedious, boring job that, fortunately, cobots are all too ready and willing to take on. So, why not hand it off to a cobot?  STÖGER Automation has now done just that and adapted its robot screwdriver for cobot operation.

Harnessing a screwdriving robot to an automatic tool changer that also auto-feeds the system with fasteners brings cobot cost savings to assembly work.

The STÖGER unit is small and unobtrusive in the work area, and when allied with a cobot operating in space-constrained, human collaborative work areas, it seems like an ideal fit. Just watching the video of the STÖGER screwdriving unit in action (see video of slim-line, screwing unit and Universal Robots (UR) cobot) should be enough to generate application ideas for many end users, especially SMEs.

The STÖGER gripper can handle up to 15 different screwdriving operations “with different screw geometries and screw positions mapped and combined with each other.”

Although the UR cobot and STÖGER gripper are agonizingly slow in operation, it’s still a landmark capability that is sure to crank up speed in the near future. Versatility over speed is a strong point: The unit can pick and place a component, screw in different screws of varying geometries, set balls, or pins, or clips, and then assemble components

New Scale

New Scale Robotics’ PG-10-20 gripper/caliper
In the world of tiny grippers for tiny jobs, it may be that New Scale Robotics has the market for tiny a bit cornered. The company’s new PG-10-20 is actually two tiny things in one tiny package: A gripper that can pick and place like its larger brethren, but also a precision caliper for measuring and QCing of tiny parts.

How small is New Scale-tiny? Well, the company’s founder, Dave Henderson, said in an interview that they’ve “made modules that move optics in mobile phone cameras with micrometer precision.” And we all know that the optics in our cellphones are really, really small.

In fact, the small world of New Scale robotics is burgeoning.  For example, just the global micromachining market is $2.4 billion (2020) and is forecast to $3.3 billion by 2025. The growth of this market is accelerated by the growing demand for the miniaturization of electronic devices. Like Henderson’s “optics in mobile phone cameras”.

Henderson noted during the interview that a “significant number of applications work with small parts, less than 100 grams [3.5 ounces; about the weight of 20 U.S. nickels] and include CNC machining, injection molding, die casting, grinding and polishing optics, electronics assembly and testing, and lab automation.”

That’s a big market.  His company’s precision grippers, installed on cobots, “automate labor intensive inspection tasks by integrating part picking, measurement, data logging, sorting and assembly.”

Even in our digital world of automation and instant data, testing and quality control of machined parts is mostly done by hand, and the resulting data is jotted into a notebook by hand, which means someone with a pair of calipers in hand is doing lots of piece work.  The PG-10-20 gripper and electronic caliper automates the QC process, eliminating human piece work (and the labor cost associated with it), and, as a nice bonus, digitizes the data flowing from that automated process.

Since most of the world’s manufacturing, according to McKinsey, is automatable but still not automated, with “478 billion of the 749 billion working hours (64 percent)” still in manual mode, eliminating the high cost of trained labor for QCing parts is very important, especially for small manufacturers (23,000 in the U.S. alone) with tight margins.

The PG-10-20 gripper/caliper is a plug and play tool, which all cobot grippers need to be these days just to survive, and optimized for high-mix, small-batch manufacturing—agile automation—which means fast deployment and re-deployment of automation in response to product changes.

The PG-10-20’s metrology capability is an add-on package of fingers and fingertips that attach using a hex wrench. New Scale’s website claims that the resolution of its electronic digital calipers is 2.5 µm (0.0001 inches).


OnRobot 3FG15 three-finger gripper
OnRobot is out with another piece of gear to add to its existing, well-designed lineup of grippers. The newest, the 3FG15 three-finger gripper, represents a particularly snazzy combo of cool product design and engineering excellence.

Form and function perfectly aligned. Someone’s going to get a design award for this effort. The 3FG15 uses a three-point grab, just like you’d do with your hand reaching for a ball or cylinder, then neatly tucks its fingers back together when not in use. Check out the video. Notice how it adeptly grabs both inner and outer geometries. Cool stuff!

Here’s how OnRobot’s press release describes it:

“This gripper makes previously hard-to-automate precision handling of cylindrical parts easy to program and deploy, and provides flexibility for a wide range of part sizes. The 3FG15 gripper is specially developed for machine-tending tasks and is also ideal for packaging and palletizing applications.”

The three fingers can outstretch to 150mm (almost 6 inches) and close to 20mm (the size of a U.S. nickel); it can heft up to 15 kg (33 lb) with a gripping force of 10-240 Newtons. Super design, elegant engineering, and its strong.

Another very convenient and smart feature is OnRobot’s One System Solution, which offers a “unified mechanical and electrical interface between the robot arms and any OnRobot end-of-arm tool.”  So, if a shop has a FANUC, UR, or Kawasaki machine, OnRobot’s grippers can fit them all, and more.

Overall, if you are developing gripper tech, then doing it for cobots is where you want to be. And that’s exactly what’s happening; the field for cobot gripper tech is electric with activity.

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