18 months since the toolkit's release, soft robotics is flying

Gordon Hunt for SiliconRepublic:  Pioneered in Ireland by the likes of Dr Dónal Holland, with a plethora of departments in Harvard University in the US involved, the Soft Robotics Toolkit has gone on to foster significant interest in an area exploding into the mainstream.

More than 76,000 people have engaged with the service since it was created, represented across 150 different countries, with the toolkit identified as having made one of the most significant contributions to the development of the nascent industry to date.

While robotics engineering used to focus much more attention on creating the rigid, hard-bodied prototypes like Bender from Futurama, for example, lately there has been a push towards soft, malleable structures that take their inspiration from nature.  Cont'd...

Carnegie Mellon robotics selected for research projects totaling more than $11 million

Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) has been selected as a prime contractor or subcontractor on four major new federal research projects totaling more than $11 million over the next three years. The projects range from research on a wheel that can transform into a track to automated stress testing for critical software. 
Herman Herman, NREC director, said the center has hired 10 new technical staff members in the past six months and anticipates hiring another five-to-10 staff members in the coming months to augment its existing staff of about 100. 

"For the past 20 years, NREC has been an important national resource, combining unique technical skills and testing capabilities to solve problems that other groups can't," said Martial Hebert, director of CMU's Robotics Institute, which includes the NREC. "These new projects are a reminder that NREC continues to advance the art and science of robotics and that it remains a vital part of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute."   Full Press Release:
 

Would you buy meat from a robot butcher?

Greg Nichols for The Kernel:  In an era when hunks of cow and pig are packaged and distributed like Amazon Prime parcels, butchering has retained a surprising degree of its old-world craftsmanship. Workers armed with knives and hooks anachronistically slice flesh from bone the same way they have for hundreds of years. That’s because cutting meat—be it on an assembly line or in a niche shop in Santa Monica, California, or Brooklyn, New York—is a skill that requires exceptional dexterity, a good eye, and a honed tactile sense for texture and firmness. Industrial robots may be perfectly suited to welding chassis and painting cars, but they don’t have the touch to cut a succulent T-bone steak.

That’s likely to change. JBS, one of the country’s largest meat processors, recently acquired a controlling share of Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based robotics firm. Now JBS is looking at ways to automate its facilities. Robots don’t sleep, don’t collect overtime, and don’t suffer the horrific repetitive stress injuries that plague meat workers. Meat is already packed using machines, and if engineers can figure out how to make automated systems that approximate the deft hands of a butcher, there’s little question giants like JBS, Cargill, and Tyson will replace many of their line workers with robots. In the next decade, adroit robots that can see, feel, and move like humans may finally kill off the butcher.  Cont'd...

Mercedes Boots Robots From the Production Line:

By Elisabeth Behrmann & Christoph Rauwald for Bloomberg Business:  “Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Markus Schaefer, the German automaker’s head of production, said at its factory in Sindelfingen, the anchor of the Daimler AG unit’s global manufacturing network. “We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”

Mercedes’s Sindelfingen plant, the manufacturer’s biggest, is an unlikely place to question the benefits of automation. While the factory makes elite models such as the GT sports car and the ultra-luxury S-Class Maybach sedan, the 101-year-old site is far from a boutique assembly shop. The complex processes 1,500 tons of steel a day and churns out more than 400,000 vehicles a year.

That makes efficient, streamlined production as important at Sindelfingen as at any other automotive plant. But the age of individualization is forcing changes to the manufacturing methods that made cars and other goods accessible to the masses. The impetus for the shift is versatility. While robots are good at reliably and repeatedly performing defined tasks, they’re not good at adapting. That’s increasingly in demand amid a broader offering of models, each with more and more features.  Cont'd...

Republican-Leaning Cities Are At Greater Risk Of Job Automation

By Jed Kolko for Five Thirty Eight:  More and more work activities and even entire jobs are at risk of beingautomated by algorithms, computers and robots, raising concerns that more and more humans will be put out of work. The fear of automation is widespread — President Obama cited it as the No. 1 reason Americans feel anxious about the economy in his State of the Union address last month — but its effects are not equally distributed, creating challenges for workers and policymakers. An analysis of where jobs are most likely to face automation shows that areas that voted Republican in the last presidential election are more at risk, suggesting that automation could become a partisan issue.

So-called “routine” jobs — those that “can be accomplished by following explicit rules” — are most at risk of automation. These include both “manual” routine occupations, such as metalworkers and truck drivers, and “cognitive” routine occupations, such as cashiers and customer service reps.1 Whereas many routine jobs tend to be middle-wage, non-routine jobs include both higher-wage managerial and professional occupations and lower-wage service jobs.  Cont'd...

Japanese Firm To Open World's First Robot-run Farm

Spread, a vegetable producer, said industrial robots would carry out all but one of the tasks needed to grow the tens of thousands of lettuces it produces each day at its vast indoor farm in Kameoka, Kyoto prefecture, starting from mid-2017.

The robots will do everything from re-planting young seedlings to watering, trimming and harvesting crops.

The innovation will boost production from 21,000 lettuces a day to 50,000 a day, the firm said, adding that it planned to raise that figure to half a million lettuces daily within five years.

“The seeds will still be planted by humans, but every other step, from the transplanting of young seedlings to larger spaces as they grow to harvesting the lettuces, will be done automatically,” said JJ Price, Spread’s global marketing manager.

The new farm – an extension of its existing Kameoka farm – will improve efficiency and reduce labour costs by about half. The use of LED lighting means energy costs will be slashed by almost a third, and about 98% of the water needed to grow the crops will be recycled.

The farm, measuring about 4,400 sq metres, will have floor-to-ceiling shelves where the produce is grown... (cont'd)

Humanoid robots in tomorrow's aircraft manufacturing

From Phys.Org:  Developing humanoid robotic technology to perform difficult tasks in aircraft manufacturing facilities is the goal of a four-year joint research project, which is being conducted by the Joint Robotics Laboratory (CNRS/AIST) and Airbus Group. It will officially be launched on 12 February 2016 at the French Embassy in Tokyo. The introduction of humanoids on aircraft assembly lines will make it possible to relieve human operators of the most laborious and dangerous tasks, thus allowing them to concentrate on higher value-added ones. The primary difficulty for these robots will be to work in a confined environment and move without colliding with the numerous surrounding objects. This is the first issue researchers will have to solve by developing new algorithms for the planning and control of precise movements.  Cont'd...
 

Earthbound Robots Today Need to Take Flight

Neil Tardella for IEEE Spectrum:  The DARPA Robotics Challenge this past summer showcased how far humanoid robots have come—but also how far they have yet to go before they can tackle real-world practical applications. Even the best of the DRC behemoths stumbled and fell down, proving, as IEEE Spectrum noted at the time, that “not walking is a big advantage.”

There is, in fact, a new not-walking way for robots to perform many kinds of tasks better and faster: the dexterous drone.

A lightweight flying platform with a robotic arm combines the strengths of two rapidly developing, parallel industries. Aerial drones like quadcopters and octocopters have in just the past few years emerged as a viable industrial and consumer product with substantial maneuverability, versatility, and durability. Yet the drones of today are mostly just flying bodies with no arms or hands.  Cont'd...

"It's quite large:" Exact Automation showcases world's largest robot

JULIE COLLINS for Fox 6 Now:  The world's largest robot is here in Milwaukee. But folks looking to get a glimpse of the giant piece of technology better act fast.With precision and ease, this robot can pick up an 800-pound motorcycle!

"Well you can't help but be astounded by it, quite frankly. It's quite large," said James Schneberger with New Berlin Plastics, Inc.

And it's right here in Milwaukee at Exact Automation. The company purchased the machine from FANUC -- a Japanese company. It arrived in November, but Exact Automation had work to do before it got here.

"We had to pour new concrete in the building. We had to put 100,000 pound of concrete to prepare as a base for this robot because it weighs so much," said Exact Automation Owner Jim Mevis.

Schneberger works around robots -- but nothing this large. Weighing in at 26,000 pounds, Schneberger is astonished at its size.  Cont'd...

Is Velo3D Plotting a 3-D Printed Robot Revolution?

Tekla S. Perry for IEEE Spectrum:  Velo3D, based in Santa Clara, Calif., has $22.1 million in venture investment to do something in 3-D printing: That makes it fourth among 2015’s best-funded stealth-mode tech companies in the United States, according to CB Insights. This dollar number is about all the hard news that has come out of this startup, founded in 2014 by Benyamin Butler and Erel Milshtein. But job postings, talks at conferences, and other breadcrumbs left along Velo3D's development trail—has created a sketchy outline of this company’s plans.

Consider which 3-D printing technology is ready for disruption: metal. 3-D printing of plastics took off after 2009, when a key patent that covered the deposition technology expired; we now have desktop printers for 3-D plastic objects as cheap as $350. Printing of metal objects—done regularly in industry, particularly aerospace—uses a different, and, to date, far more expensive technology: selective laser sintering. This technology melts metal powders into solid shapes; it requires high temperatures, and far more complicated equipment than what’s found in the layering sort of printers used for plastic. The patent for this technology expired in early 2014—just before the formation of Velo3D. At the time, industry experts indicated that there wouldn’t be cheap metal printers coming anytime soon, but rather, would only come after “a significant breakthrough on the materials side,” OpenSLS’s Andreas Bastian told GigaOm in 2014. Could Velo3D’s founders have that breakthrough figured out?  Cont'd...

A problem-solving approach IT workers should learn from robotics engineers

Greg Nichols  for ZDNet:  Google-owned Boston Dynamics got some bad news in the final days of 2015.  After years of development and intensive field trials, the Massachusetts-based robotics company learned that the U.S. Marines had decided to reject its four-legged robotic mule, Big Dog. The reason? The thing is too damn noisy for combat, where close quarters and the occasional need for stealth make excess machine noise a liability.

The setback reminded me of a story another group of robotics engineers told me about the development of their breakthrough machine, a robotic exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk and soldiers to hump heavy packs without wearing down. It also reminded me of a powerful approach to solving problems and dealing with setbacks that I've encountered again and again reporting on robotics.

Ekso Bionics, which went public in 2015, invented the first viable untethered exoskeleton, one that doesn't need to be plugged into an external power source. Their achievement rests on one engineering breakthrough in particular, and to arrive at it Ekso's engineers had to do something that's surprisingly difficult but incredibly instructive for non-engineers--they had to change the way they thought about their problem.  Cont'd...

 

Factory Automation Will Speed Forward with A.I., Says Bernstein

By Tiernan Ray for Barron's:  Bernstein Research’s Alberto Moel, who follows tech-industrial companies such as Corning(GLW) and AU Optronics (AUO), this afternoon offered up a thinks piece on robotics andfactory automation, arguing that some of the costs of automation beyond the basic cost of the robot are about to get dramatically cheaper, thanks in large part to artificial intelligence akin to what Alphabet (GOOGL) and others are doing.

Moel notes that the basic components of factory robots are only falling by perhaps 6% per year, their cost reduction bounded by things such as casings and servomotors and reduction gears that don’t rapidly fall in cost.

But, writes Moel, the cost to install and adjust these machines on a factory floor is ten times their component cost and that stuff can be reduced more dramatically:

How much this integration costs varies widely. An often-cited rule of thumb is that a $50,000 robot will need $500,000 of integration costs before it is all said and done. Of course, these integration costs can be amortized over many robots, so perhaps a better estimate would be 3-5x the robot cost [...] But I do believe we are at an inflection pointthat will materially increase the capability of automation systems and substantially reduce programming, setup, and fixturing costs which are the largest cost element in most automation efforts. So instead of a measly 6% YoY cost reduction , we get 25-30% YoY declines, and automation Nirvana.  Cont'd...

Robotics, reshoring, and American jobs

By Charles Orlowek for The Hill:  Good news?   Boston Consulting Group foresees more large manufacturers boosting production for the American market by adding capacity in the U.S. itself, compared with any other country.  It cites “decreasing costs and improved capabilities of advanced manufacturing technologies such as robotics."  Under this optimistic scenario, how much value would American workers add?  When robotics and other automation gets built for, and installed in American workplaces, where are jobs created?   

Increasingly, these jobs are being created and sustained outside the United States, even for domestic factories.   

The first industrial robots were developed and manufactured by Americans, and General Motors became the first user, in 1961.  Over recent decades, however, the domestic robot industry has declined.   A Commerce Department national security assessment from 1991 asserted that American robot manufacturers lost market share throughout the 1980s, with shipments of U.S.-manufactured robots falling by 33 percent between 1984 and 1989, despite robust domestic demand and a weak dollar.   Cont'd...

Looking for a few good robots

By Adam Zewe for Harvard News:  If you have a soft spot for robotics, this competition is right up your alley.

The 2016 Soft Robotics Competitions offer anyone with an interest in robotics the chance to design and build their own soft robot using the resources available in the open-source Soft Robotics Toolkit.

Now in its second year, the competition was developed by Conor Walsh, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Dónal Holland, visiting lecturer in engineering sciences, as a way to encourage individuals to take advantage of the resources provided in the Soft Robotics Toolkit.

The toolkit, which incorporates contributions from researchers from Harvard and other institutions, provides a set of intellectual tools that one can use to design and construct a robot using soft, flexible materials. It includes resources such as step-by-step instructions on building actuators and sensors, lists of suggested materials, and how-to fabrication videos.

The ultimate goal of the competition is to encourage others to find innovative applications for soft robotics technology and continue expanding interest in this relatively new field.  Cont'd...

Space Bots & Android Waste Collectors: What's Ahead for Robotics

By Elizabeth Palermo for LiveScience:  It was a good year to be a robot.

In 2015, researchers in Korea unveiled a robotic exoskeleton that users can control with their minds, a four-legged bot in China set a new world record by walking 83.28 miles (134.03 km) without stopping and 3D-printing robots in Amsterdam started work on a new steel footbridge.

But these smart machines are capable of so much more. Researchers around the world are now designing and building bots that will complete more noteworthy tasks in 2016 and beyond. From exploring other planets to fighting fires at sea, here are a few skills that bots could pick up in the new year.  Full Article:  

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