At the recent A3 Business Forum — held in conjunction with the Robotics Industries Association, or RIA, the Automated Imaging Association, or AIA, and the Motion Control & Motor Association, or MCMA, I got the chance to interview two robotics experts about robot technology is changing myriad industries and the way they’re automated.
Nigel Smith, President and CEO, and Ryan Guthrie, Executive VP of TM Robotics Inc. took time out of their days to expound on the current state and future of robotics — including cobots, medical robotics, consumer-grade robots, and innovations in industrial robotics as well.
Eitel • Design World: So how have robots evolved over the last couple decades?
Smith • TM Robotics: We’ve built industrial robots with Toshiba Machine since the 1970s. They’re one of the pioneers of research and development into robot technology — which has evolved into the wide array of SCARAs, Cartesian, and 6-axis robots we have today.
Just consider one way in which robot applications are advancing in Japan — for the Fukushima nuclear cleanup. Here, strong research and development are spurring new forms of environment-assisting robots. That new technology is also spurring advances in medical and domestic-robot designs.
Eitel • Design World: Walk me through the process of how you work with engineers that are looking to buy robots but need help. How does that work?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: The first thing is we look at the physical space into which the robot will go.
We then ask: Does the space necessitate a uniquely designed robot — one that hangs from the ceiling, for example? Or are we looking at ones that hang off the wall? What kind of movement do they plan on needing?
Let’s face it, that’s what a robot must do — move. So we must also ask: Will the robots move in a 2D plane? Will they move in a 3D plane? What kind of weights and payloads are they transporting?
Eitel • Design World: What offerings are your forte?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: Toshiba Machine has always provided robots that handle payloads 20 kg and lighter … moving 1,000 mm and under. That’s really our specialty, and we offer Cartesian, SCARA, and 6-axis robots for that. We look at an application and say, “If it’s only moving parts from A to B, it probably only needs a SCARA.”
In contrast, if the application needs a robot to pick up a part, rotate it, and place it into a holder or something like that … that extra rotation may necessitate a 6-axis robot. These factors are the things we consider early in the design-engineering cycle — and ask the specifying engineers to consider.
So engineers sometimes come to us and say, “We need a 6-axis robot” because that’s a technology they’ve seen on TV. However, the reality is that they might not know that SCARAs exist. They might not know that they won’t use all the range of a 6-axis robot. In this case, engineers are at risk of over-complicating designs simply because they’ve only seen one technology. Here, we can tell them that they don’t need that — and can cut costs by using a design with four axes of motion. Then they don’t pay for more than they really need.
To use an analogy — does the average driver really need an SUV to commute to and from work every day? No. In robotics, it’s often the same kind of thing.
Eitel • Design World: How do you dissuade engineers from a robotic technology when it’s not right?
Smith • TM Robotics: Everybody wants simplicity and ease of programming. Why buy complex robots when a simple one will do? Because for all those mechanical axes, you’ve got controls with associated feedback. So especially first-time robot users, we like to ask them, “Do you really need a 6-axis?”
Guthrie • TM Robotics During training, I use SCARAs to illustrate robotic options for first-time users. After all, SCARA movements are easy to picture in the mind’s eye, as their movements happen in an X-Y plane. In contrast, 6-axis robots move in that XY plane as well as rotate. Trying to understand the calculations involved in describing that motion can be disheartening for first-time robot users — when the reality is, they might not even need it. Such robotics will then scare them away from future automation, when starting simple with a 4-axis SCARA is a legitimate design approach.