With ongoing demand for faster operations across manufacturing, companies no longer have as much time to re-engineer robotics systems, grippers, and end-of-arm tools as they did before. Expectations of tools that can grip or manipulate every material has driven tool makers to provide more options for customers.
RBR50 2019 honoree OnRobot made a giant impact on the robotics industry last year, creating a single company from the result of merging three companies into one. The company aims to create a one-stop shop for companies looking for end-of-arm tools and grippers for their light industrial robots or cobot systems.
Robotics Business Review recently spoke with Kristian Hulgard, general manager – Americas for OnRobot, about how customers are demanding more from end-of-arm tools/gripper makers, the need for standardization, and how companies are focusing more on applications instead of robots.
Q: With the growth in the number of different types of end-of-arm tools and grippers in recent years, it feels like robots and cobots can grab almost any type of object in the physical world. Do you agree with this, or are there other advances that need to occur?
Hulgard: I agree that all materials can be handled by grippers today — some materials better than others. The real question, however, is how many materials and substances can be gripped by non-customized grippers. This is where the challenge lies.
Customers want to take the robot out of the box and be productive right away, and integrators need to cut their integration time and engineering hours per project. They all need end-of-arm tooling that can solve their problems immediately and be easily integrated into their current operations.
Q: The growth of these gripper options also seems to open up a slew of new applications in manufacturing, warehousing, and other markets. What are some of the changes that are expanding the number of new applications that can now be handled by robots/cobots, where previously a customer might have said, “No, robots can’t do that yet”?
Hulgard: Metal manufacturing and packaging are still dominant applications for collaborative robotics, but we’re also seeing an increase in new applications such as food and beverage, agriculture, and electronics.
A couple of things are opening doors for these new applications, including new gripper technologies and simplified integration that dramatically reduces deployment time. For instance, the market is moving away from pneumatic grippers to electric grippers, so now the robot can receive feedback on what it’s gripping, how it’s gripping, and if it’s gripping correctly. That gives customers greater flexibility so the same gripper can grip any size or shape material, and the application can be adjusted with the touch of a button. This opens up many new applications, even in low-volume, high-mix environments.
Entirely new technologies make a difference as well. For example, vacuum gripping has always struggled with porosity. Our Gecko gripper allows gripping of parts that couldn’t easily be gripped before, such as porous printed circuit boards. Now that integrators or manufacturers don’t need to spend countless engineering hours trying to come up with a gripping solution for those materials and situations, they can look at automating all kinds of new applications.
Q: Do you believe there needs to be more standardization with cobot/robot makers for connections, communications interfaces, or other aspects so that customers can more easily switch between end-of-arm tools and the robot arms themselves? What position does OnRobot take in terms of these standards efforts?
Hulgard: There’s significant overhead for manufacturers to train workers on different technologies and products, so it would be a lot easier if all robots used the same connections, communications, cables, etc. But while we would certainly get involved in industry standardization efforts, we’re not seeing anything promising so far.
That’s why our approach is to make sure our hardware and software work with any cobot or light industrial robot brand. We have a common user experience for all of our products from the robot’s teach pendant, so it’s easy for customers and integrators to implement and control our products with their preferred robot or multiple robots.
That means they don’t have to invest time in training operators on different platforms, and their lines can stay up and productive without the downtime that often comes with implementing different technologies.
Q: This may be more of a philosophical question – is it more important to have grippers/end-of-arm tools that are easier to attach/switch/change, etc., versus a gripper/tool that could have multiple purposes (such as one tool that has several grippers that rotates depending on the task?)
Hulgard: Both are absolutely important! The industry is moving away from a focus on collaborative robots and is now focusing on flexible, redeployable collaborative applications. As a tool vendor, if you don’t have both of these features covered, you’re not the right solution for most customers.
Customers are more demanding and focused on their applications and what they can get out of the whole automation setup. They want to be able to run small product lines, do more customization, and adapt quickly when their market needs change. That’s why all of our products are multi-purpose solutions and can be attached, switched, or changed with a click of a button.
Just like with any other piece of technology we depend on, like smartphones or tablets, we don’t want to have to read the manual or get trained on every different thing it can do. We want to just pick it up and use it for anything we need it to do.
Q: OnRobot made a big splash in 2018 by creating the new company out of three different companies – how has the company benefited through this merger/acquisition?
Hulgard: Both OnRobot and our customers benefited in many ways. Our goal is to become a one-stop shop for collaborative applications, so integrators and manufacturers can get all the tools they need in one place to automate more. Now they can come to a single, convenient source that has all the tools they need to get productive fast.
By merging the three companies, we moved a step closer to our goal. OnRobot also acquired two more companies in the past nine months, which brought additional products to our portfolio, and we’re looking for further acquisitions in the future. Along with innovative products, we also gained human resources in almost every department, so sales, R&D, and administration can keep up with market demand. With this strategy, we expect to have 40 to 50 products by the end of 2020, both from acquisition as well as internal R&D.
Q: What does it mean for the company to be named to the RBR50 list?
Hulgard: It is very exciting to be recognized by RBR as one of the industry’s most innovative and transformative companies that is achieving commercial success. As a company, we talk a lot about our unique approach that’s making collaborative automation easy and flexible. We’re helping to transform the market by moving away from focusing on the robot to focusing on customers’ applications instead.
That’s helping to dramatically reduce engineering time and get customers’ collaborative applications up and productive almost immediately. This kind of recognition helps more companies hear that there’s a better, faster way to automate. We all win when manufacturers are more productive and more competitive so they can focus on making more innovative and cost-effective products.