IMTS 2014 - Empire Robotics' New Multitasking VERSABALL® Gripper Ushers In Fundamental Agile Manufacturing Change

Joint Demonstration at IMTS with Universal Robots UR5 Robot Showcases VERSABALL Grippers Ability to Quickly Adapt to a Variety of Manufacturing Tasks With a Fraction of the Engineering Time and Effort

Boston, September 4, 2014: Attendees at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago, September 8 - 13, will be the first to witness the commercially available version of Empire Robotics new VERSABALL — a new gripper archetype able to flexibly adapt to multiple, automated manufacturing tasks. Hosted at Universal Robots IMTS Booth E-4841, the VERSABALL demonstration takes place on Wednesday, September 10 from 9am - 1pm.

At IMTS, Empire Robotics VERSABALL gripper will be mounted on Universal Robots UR5 robot. The demonstration illustrates how the VERSABALL attached to a UR robot arm offers an optimal choice for safe, collaborative robot applications with humans working in close proximity to robots on agile manufacturing tasks.

With VERSABALL, Empire Robotics provides off-the-shelf ease of use that cuts engineering time and costs for custom tooling and complex handling tasks. Unlike hard grippers, the balloon-shaped VERSABALL conforms to and grips a wide range of objects without reprogramming. The new end-of-arm tool will pick and place objects ranging from light gearwheels to heavy bricks and delicate light bulbs — all in the same cycle without any changes to the application.

"Empire Robotics VERSABALL is one of the most unique new gripper technologies on the market," said Ed Mullen, National Sales Manager with Universal Robots in North America. "We foresee the VERSABALL gripper as having the same, positive impact on collaborative robotics as our robot arm has had. The fact that the gripper is soft between grips and can be deployed on the fly further extends the safety and flexibility benefits of our robot arms."

"By providing an easy and safe-to-implement robot at an affordable price, Universal Robots has become the industrial robotics leader in the agile robot trend," said Bill Culley, President of Empire Robotics. "Our VERSABALL gripper compliments the flexibility of the UR5 and UR10 robots with an end-of-arm gripping solution that has minimal impact on the bottom line and shrinks time between product cycles, pushing robotics into small- and medium-sized manufacturing facilities."

The live demonstration at IMTS showcases the following VERSABALL features:

1. Flexibility - with four very different objects (brick, light bulb, steel gear, billiard ball)

2. Delicate object handling - CFL light bulb

3. Repeatability - putting objects in the same place every time within the jig tolerance (plug bulb into a socket)

4. Reliability - zero drops after 8,000 cycles

5. Durability - metal gear and brick are sharp and abrasive

Watch a video of the demo here: 
VERSABALL Solves Automation Challenges

Historically, robot integrators have spent a great deal of engineering resources designing specialized and varied grippers for industrial production. To meet the demands of agile manufacturing — typically with a low-volume, high-mix series of tasks — automating production involves frequent reprogramming and retooling. For many companies, the final solution often combines expensive mechanical, vacuum, and magnetic grippers into a complex end-of-arm tool that is highly specific to the application and not easily adaptable or reusable.

In contrast to traditional, fixed tooling, Empire Robotics VERSABALL delivers an out-of-the-box, multitask solution that easily adapts to a variety of tasks. In a matter of minutes, with a fraction of the engineering time and effort, VERSABALL can be programmed or reprogrammed to pick and place parts that vary — like ceramics — and consistent parts with varied orientations such as objects that fall randomly on a conveyor.

Industry Testing Leads to Commercial Availability

The commercial availability of the VERSABALL gripper follows extensive industry testing of the Empire Robotics research kit available since January 2014. The research kits include small- and large-sized heads, along with the necessary pneumatic base and accessories to properly operate the gripper.

Testing garnered significant interest from companies such as Callaghan Innovation in New Zealand, who is interested in the VERSABALL because of its ability to grip naturally varying objects.

"The VERSABALL adds value by gripping objects where rough surfaces would cause problems for suction cups," said Phil Stucki, R&D Engineer with Callaghan Innovation. "Overall, we found VERSABALL quite easy to install, and it worked well for many applications."

The VERSABALL is a squishy balloon membrane full of loose sub-millimeter particles. The soft ball gripper easily conforms around a wide range of target object shapes and sizes. Using a process known as "granular jamming", air is quickly sucked out of the ball, which vacuum-packs the particles and hardens the gripper around the object to hold and lift it. The object releases when the ball is reinflated. VERSABALL comes in 3.5- and 6.5-inch head models that use the same pneumatic base.

About Empire Robotics
Empire Robotics was founded in 2012 by CTO John Amend and President Bill Culley and is headquartered in Boston, MA. The company is a Cornell University technology spinout with a talented team of PhD researchers and engineers who are experts in soft robotics and the phase transitions of granular materials. Empire Robotics extends robot gripping into off-the-shelf, end-of-arm tools, a historically highly customized and complex field. In contrast, VERSABALL is an easy-to-program, versatile, turnkey gripper that enables agile manufacturing processes for small and large companies.

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