Soft Grippers Can Handle Small and Delicate Parts With Greater Ease
Soft gripper technology is revolutionizing robotics across countless applications. Recent developments in soft grippers are allowing robots to interact with a much wider range of objects, even small and delicate items. This opens up new possibilities in robotic automation and even some cutting edge robotics applications. From injection molding to strawberries and even robotic surgeries, soft gripper technology is making it easier than ever before for robots to pick up anything.
Advantages of Soft Grippers
Those familiar with the robotics industry will know that robots have been capable of picking up some objects like strawberries or pastries for years now. However, the results were often not ideal or even functional. Other types of robotic grippers may be too big or too hard or lack the dexterity needed to effectively interact with small and delicate objects. For example, a magnetic gripper could certainly pick up a bolt, but it would not be able to maneuver the bolt once retrieved or pick it up in a controlled, consistent manner.
Dexterity and Flexibility
Soft grippers have the dexterity and gentleness to pick and place even the most delicate of objects, like egg yolks or soft vegetables. They bridge the gap between suction grippers and mechanical grippers. Soft grippers are also a more flexible solution for many common robotics challenges. For example, when it comes to handling injection molded parts, soft grippers are a great option because they are simpler and more flexible than more complicated or specialized end-of-arm tooling.
The flexibility that soft grippers offer is a major advantage, particularly in manufacturing. It means that manufacturers can spend less money on specialized tooling and use one type of gripper for more applications throughout their process. The same gripper could be used to handle two different food items, for example.
An Edge in Computing
Interestingly, some types of soft grippers can actually reduce computing and processing needs for robotic assembly lines and other applications. As soft robotics expert Carl Vause explains in an interview with TechCrunch that soft robotic grippers don’t need to precisely calculate exactly how much to grip objects. Pneumatic soft grippers, for example, are gentle and flexible enough that they will conform to the shape of the object they are interacting with without the need for precise instructions. This means that a robotic cell using soft grippers can actually operate faster and more efficiently than a conventional robotic gripper.
Types of Soft Grippers
Soft grippers are themselves a category of end-of-arm tooling, but there are also many unique types of grippers in this category. Where soft grippers in general serve a broad purpose of interacting with small and delicate objects, the various types of soft grippers are specialized for specific applications and objects. The different types of soft grippers vary between their sizes, the number of fingers they have, and the type of operation the gripper uses. Most soft grippers are either hydraulic or pneumatic.
The most room for customization is in the size of the gripper. The perfect sized gripper can augment the dexterity and effectiveness of soft grippers. Usually sizing is based on the maximum width or diameter the gripper can pick up, with sizes like 30 mm, 50 mm, 100 mm, and onward. A 30 mm gripper, for example, is perfect for picking up small machine parts or pieces of candy. An array of two-finger soft grippers is good for oblong objects, such as fragile ice cream cones or long fruits and vegetables.
Soft grippers usually have 2 to 4 fingers, whether they are hydraulic or pneumatic. Claw-style grippers with multiple fingers are the most common layout used for soft grippers, although there are some niche designs that use more unique mechanisms such as webbing. In pneumatic grippers, for example, the soft rubber fingers are essentially hollow. There aren’t hard mechanical parts inside. When the fingers are pressurized, they flex, allowing the fingers to wrap around the desired object. The amount of pressure can be adjusted for different objects as needed.
Soft Grippers in Manufacturing
Manufacturing is among the most popular applications for soft grippers. From assembly lines to automated packaging, soft grippers are extremely useful for handling all kinds of commercial objects. This importance is augmented even further with the increasing popularity of micro molding and other advanced manufacturing processes. Micro molding is crucial for automotive and medical manufacturing, where it is used to mold parts that are often 4 mm or less in diameter.
Incredibly small parts like this require specialized grippers for interaction with robotic cells. Even where a part might not strictly need a soft gripper, using one is often beneficial. As mentioned above, soft grippers are often more energy and processing efficient than conventional robotic grippers. Soft grippers tend to be highly easy to program and operate, as well, making them a great option for manufacturers who are new to automation or expanding their robotic automation.
Soft grippers are a game changer for food production and processing companies. In the past, countless mundane tasks could not be automated in this industrial niche because food products are often too delicate to be handled by a robot. Thanks to soft grippers, this is no longer the case. Even objects like eggs and tomatoes can be picked up safely with soft grippers. This opens the door for precise, automated pick and place for fruits, vegetables, candy, pastries, and countless other food items.
Soft Grippers in Medicine
Those following robotics advancements will have heard about the numerous projects and innovations over recent years to develop medical robots. Robot-assisted surgeries are already a reality, but soft grippers expand the possibilities for robots in healthcare even further. Robotics developments will be instrumental to the future of medicine, delivering remote surgeries and saving lives all over the world.
When it comes to handling delicate objects, there are few things that can compete with the human body. If robot grippers can be precise, dexterous, and gentle enough to interact with real patients, they could play a key role in robotic surgical procedures.
Additionally, it is also worth noting that soft gripper technology has many uses behind the scenes in healthcare and pharmaceuticals. For example, small, soft grippers are perfect for handling objects like delicate glass test tubes or petri dishes. This functionality could help medical companies and researchers automate more aspects of their research and production processes. As a result, soft gripper technology could help doctors and medical researchers save more lives by developing new treatments and products faster and producing them more efficiently.
Innovating With Soft Grippers
Soft grippers are far more than a novelty end-of-arm tooling technology. They are a revolutionary step forward in robotic grippers, transforming automation in numerous industries. Where conventional grippers require intensive processing and calculations to handle small or fragile objects, soft grippers can do it more safely, efficiently, and effectively. These grippers are changing the way people think about what a robot can do. From automotive manufacturing to lifesaving medicine, soft grippers are innovating the entire field of robotics.
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