From safely collaborating with humans to handling foods in harsh environments or accurately following a surgeon’s cues, robots increasingly need a sensitive but reliable sense of touch. Toronto-based Forcen Inc. said its patented ForceFilm technology provides a “digital sense of touch.”
“Forcen has created a paper-thin, human-level touch sensor,” claimed Robert Brooks, CEO of Forcen. He founded the company, previously known as SensOR Medical Laboratories Ltd., in 2015. Brooks won the Canadian national James Dyson Award in 2017 for co-developing ForceFilm.
“The ForceFilm sensor can be applied to almost any surface, and it is ideal for use in high-reliability robotics and medical instrumentation,” said Angad Sandhu, vice president of business development at the Toronto-based company. “I was an angel investor in Forcen and joined it three years ago.”
Developing resistant sensing
Forcen’s sensors are intended to be lightweight, accurate, and durable, Brooks told The Robot Report. “ForceFilm provides active feedback for precise and delicate gripping, which can be embedded in the wrist of a robot with six degrees of freedom, such as ABB‘s YuMi,” he said. “It can also work with higher-speed delta robots.”
ForceFilm’s power and communications modules works with all the standard interfaces, explained Brooks. “It can run on 5 to 42 volts, or 12 to 24 are good if DC,” he said. “It has fast update rates at 10kHz and is flexible — it can take any shape for end-of-arm tooling.”
The system is designed for five to seven years of continuous temperature cycling, he added. “It’s electrically immune and completely sealed against freezing or melting temperatures,” Brooks said. “This makes it ideal for food handling.”
In addition, ForceFilm can also fit in constrained spaces with more than a ton of pressure, such as with complex alignment plates. “As a result, it could even be used for predictive maintenance,” said Brooks.
“Force-torque sensors are a really interesting market,” said Sandhu. “Other vendors use ceramic-based screen-gauge technology, but we’re better at picking up data. ForceFilm is impact-resistant, drift-proof, and less bulky. It can be put on any robot arm as an indirect sensor, helping to prolong the life of machinery.”
ForceFilm enables human-machine interfaces
Haptics are particularly important for human-robot controls. “ForceFilm has single-piece construction for human-machine interaction [HMI] and works with gloves for multidimensional sensing,” said Brooks. “It is also useful for exoskeletons and prosthetics.”
“In addition, the sensor’s high reliability makes it good for outside environments,” he said. “Defense customers have asked for HMI systems to replicate buttons, switches, and dials on stainless-steel surfaces. We’re working on lower-cost, standardized versions for them.”
Haptics could also be useful with augmented and virtual reality remote controls. “We had been looking at traditional force-reflecting joysticks,” Brooks said. “We’re looking at full haptics gloves but haven’t jumped in yet — most of our customers are involved with industrial or surgical robotics.”
Healthcare applications for ForceFilm
Medical errors are the third-largest cause of death in the world, according to Forcen. Potential applications for ForceFilm include surgical robotics, orthopedic force sensing, exoskeletons, prosthetics, and more, said Brooks.
“We’re working with some of the top 10 surgical robotics companies,” said Sandhu.
Honors and plans for growth
Forcen has also received numerous honors, such as the James Dyson Award, Sandhu said. “We’ve been accepted to ABB SynerLeap and another plug-and-play program,” he said. “We were also in the Biomedical Zone of the Ryerson University ecosystem for startups and were in the top five in the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab for VCs [venture capital firms].”
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Forcen’s development of ForceFilm? “Our office is in Autodesk’s tech center in Toronto, right next to major hospitals, so we’ve been working remotely,” said Brooks. “Our vice president of engineering moved half of the machine shop to his basement. We’re building out prototypes and have contracted with local manufacturers for quality certification.”
“It has been really interesting with everyone working remotely,” he said. “Most of the design work was already in the cloud, but it was really hard to collaborate on physical builds and debugging.”
“We’re working to close the angel tranche of our seed round,” Brooks said. “We have NDAs [nondisclosure agreements] with 45 companies, which a good step in the right direction.”