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Universal Robots, already the dominant force in collaborative robots, is flexing its muscles in an effort to further expand its reach in the cobots market. The Danish company is introducing today the UR16e, its strongest robotic arm yet, with a payload capability of 16 kilograms (35.3 lbs), reach of 900 millimeters, and repeatability of +/- 0.05 mm.
Universal says the new “heavy duty payload cobot” will allow customers to automate a broader range of processes, including packaging and palletizing, nut and screw driving, and high-payload and CNC machine tending.
In early 2015, Universal introduced the UR3, its smallest robot, which joined the UR5 and the flagship UR10, offering a payload capability of 3, 5, and 10 kg, respectively. Now the company is going in the other direction, announcing a bigger, stronger arm.
“With Universal joining its competitors in extending the reach and payload capacity of its cobots, a new standard of capability is forming,” Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research, in London, tweeted.
Like its predecessors, the UR16e is part of Universal’s e-Series platform, which features 6 degrees of freedom and force/torque sensing on the tool flange. The UR family of cobots have stood out from the competition by being versatile in a variety of applications and, most important, easy to deploy and program. Universal didn’t release UR16e’s price, saying only that it is about 10 percent higher than that of the UR10e, which is about $50,000, depending on the configuration.
Jürgen von Hollen, president of Universal Robots, says the company decided to launch the UR16e after studying the market and talking to customers about their needs. “What came out of that process is we understood payload was a true barrier for a lot of customers,” he tells IEEE Spectrum. The 16 kg payload will be particularly useful for applications that require mounting specialized tools on the arm to perform tasks like screw driving and machine tending, he explains. Customers that could benefit from such applications include manufacturing, material handling, and automotive companies.
“We’ve added the payload, and that will open up that market for us,” von Hollen says.
The difference between Universal and Rethink
Universal has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 2008. By 2015, it had sold more than 5,000 robots; that number was close to 40,000 as of last year. During the same period, revenue more than doubled from about $100 million to $234 million. At a time when a string of robot makers have shuttered, including most notably Rethink Robotics, a cobots pioneer and Universal’s biggest rival, Universal finds itself in an enviable position, having amassed a commanding market share, estimated at between 50 to 60 percent.
About Rethink, von Hollen says the Boston-based company was a “good competitor,” helping disseminate the advantages and possibilities of cobots. “When Rethink basically ended it was more of a negative than a positive, from my perspective,” he says. In his view, a major difference between the two companies is that Rethink focused on delivering full-fledged applications to customers, whereas Universal focused on delivering a product to the market and letting the system integrators and sales partners deploy the robots to the customer base.
“We’ve always been very focused on delivering the product, whereas I think Rethink was much more focused on applications, very early on, and they added a level of complexity to their company that made it become very de-focused,” he says.
The collaborative robots market: massive growth
And yet, despite its success, Universal is still tiny when you compare it to the giants of industrial automation, which include companies like ABB, Fanuc, Yaskawa, and Kuka, with revenue in the billions of dollars. Although some of these companies have added cobots to their product portfolios—ABB’s YuMi, for example—that market represents a drop in the bucket when you consider global robot sales: The size of the cobots market was estimated at $700 million in 2018, whereas the global market for industrial robot systems (including software, peripherals, and system engineering) is close to $50 billion.
Von Hollen notes that cobots are expected to go through an impressive growth curve—nearly 50 percent year after year until 2025, when sales will reach between $9 to $12 billion. If Universal can maintain its dominance and capture a big slice of that market, it’ll add up to a nice sum. To get there, Universal is not alone: It is backed by U.S. electronics testing equipment maker Teradyne, which acquired Universal in 2015 for $285 million.
“The amount of resources we invest year over year matches the growth we had on sales,” von Hollen says. Universal currently has more than 650 employees, most based at its headquarters in Odense, Denmark, and the rest scattered in 27 offices in 18 countries. “No other company [in the cobots segment] is so focused on one product.”
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We’re very familiar with a wide variety of transforming robots—whether for submarines or drones, transformation is a way of making a single robot adaptable to different environments or tasks. Usually, these robots are restricted to a discrete number of configurations—perhaps two or three different forms—because of the constraints imposed by the rigid structures that robots are typically made of.
Soft robotics has the potential to change all this, with robots that don’t have fixed forms but instead can transform themselves into whatever shape will enable them to do what they need to do. At ICRA in Montreal earlier this year, researchers from Yale University demonstrated a creative approach toward a transforming robot powered by string and air, with a body made primarily out of clay.
Photo: Evan Ackerman
The robot is actuated by two different kinds of “skin,” one layered on top of another. There’s a locomotion skin, made of a pattern of pneumatic bladders that can roll the robot forward or backward when the bladders are inflated sequentially. On top of that is the morphing skin, which is cable-driven, and can sculpt the underlying material into a variety of shapes, including spheres, cylinders, and dumbbells. The robot itself consists of both of those skins wrapped around a chunk of clay, with the actuators driven by offboard power and control. Here it is in action:
The Yale researchers have been experimenting with morphing robots that use foams and tensegrity structures for their bodies, but that stuff provides a “restoring force,” springing back into its original shape once the actuation stops. Clay is different because it holds whatever shape it’s formed into, making the robot more energy efficient. And if the dumbbell shape stops being useful, the morphing layer can just squeeze it back into a cylinder or a sphere.
While this robot, and the sample transformation shown in the video, are relatively simplistic, the researchers suggest some ways in which a more complex version could be used in the future:
Photo: IEEE Xplore
This robot’s morphing skin sculpts its clay body into different shapes.
Applications where morphing and locomotion might serve as complementary functions are abundant. For the example skins presented in this work, a search-and-rescue operation could use the clay as a medium to hold a payload such as sensors or transmitters. More broadly, applications include resource-limited conditions where supply chains for materiel are sparse. For example, the morphing sequence shown in Fig. 4 [above] could be used to transform from a rolling sphere to a pseudo-jointed robotic arm. With such a morphing system, it would be possible to robotically morph matter into different forms to perform different functions.
Read this article for free on IEEE Xplore until 5 September 2019
Morphing Robots Using Robotic Skins That Sculpt Clay, by Dylan S. Shah, Michelle C. Yuen, Liana G. Tilton, Ellen J. Yang, and Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio from Yale University, was presented at ICRA 2019 in Montreal.
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