The Softer Side of Robots: Flexible Robots and Grippers

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Pneumatic grippers have been around for decades to pick & place, hold, and manipulate parts small and large. Most of these grippers have stiff metal jaws that operate repeatedly and with high precision. This is useful for rigid objects that are all the same shape. However, a solution was needed for grippers that can easily grasp delicate or soft materials or objects that vary in contour, size, or orientation. This is where a new generation of pneumatic grippers with soft jaws, fingers, and bellows comes in. Let’s look at a few examples below.

Source: Soft Robotics

Soft Robotics

Probably the most well-known company providing soft grippers, Soft Robotics designs and builds soft robotic gripping systems and automation solutions that can grasp and manipulate items of varying size, shape, and weight with the same tool. This solves previously difficult automation challenges for customers in food & beverage, advanced manufacturing, and e-commerce.

By leveraging the properties of soft and compliant materials, Soft Robotics built a set of self-adaptive and dexterous robotic hands that enable a new generation of robotic systems. These systems do not require sensors or other electromechanical devices for operation.

The company’s mGrip soft gripper lineup includes dual fingers, circular grippers, and parallel grippers that can pick up objects with multiple shapes without damaging them. Soft Robotics’ software lets the operator set the grip strength and the opening amount, with four preset slots for various types of products. The Massachusetts-based company targets three major industries: food & beverage, advanced manufacturing, and e-commerce & retail.

Source: Soft Robotics

Rochu

The Rochu soft robotic gripper group focuses on soft robotic technology and provides soft gripper solutions for industrial automation and intelligent manufacturing. The China-based company’s website describes its gripper as being based on German advanced nanometer material science and technology, combined with a bionic design concept.

The flexible grippers, which are remarkably similar to those from Soft Robotics, are targeted at a range of industries, including industrial automation, logistics, food, medical, automobile, clothing, textile, 3C electronics, toys, education, and others. Rochu offers several types of gripper modules with varying finger combinations and lengths. Its mini soft beak gripper is targeted toward micro size jewelry and electronics components.

Source: Rochu

Festo

Festo provides automation technology as well as technical training and education. The New York-based company helps customers all over the world to increase their productivity through a combination of more than 30,000 automation products and technical education.

It offers grippers with metal fingers, as well as three types of soft expanding grippers for external and internal gripping of objects. The first type of flexible gripper is a bellows gripper made from ethylene propylene diene monomer rubber (EPDM) or silicone. It expands to hold objects with hollow portions ranging from 8 mm to 85 mm (inside diameter) at 4 cycles per second. The second type is an adaptable gripper made from silicone that holds delicate objects from 12 mm to 38 mm at 1 cycle per second. The third type is the TentacleGripper modeled after octopus tentacles.

Source: Festo

Firestone

Firestone offers two types of soft grippers called AirGripper and AirPicker. By controlling the amount of pressure within the bladder, Firestone end effectors can handle delicate objects with the soft touch of rubber and air.

The AirGripper is a collar that goes around the object and then expands inwardly to grip the object’s exterior for sizes ranging from 5 mm to 45 mm. AirPicker is inserted into a product while deflated, then expands to grip the inner walls of the object, similar to the Festo bellows gripper. AirPicker comes in 12 sizes and can grip objects with an inside diameter from 8.5 mm to 105 mm.

Source: Firestone Industrial Products

Canvas

The company formerly known as Pneubotics grew out of a project at a privately held research lab in San Francisco’s Mission District called Otherlab that calls itself an “invention factory.” The goal of Pneubotics was to “build a new breed of machine, a mobile tool that could perform out in the real world where most of the dirty dull and dangerous tasks are still found.” The team worked with NASA, the Office of Naval Research, and DARPA, as well as a major automotive company and a large aerospace company. Canvas aims to develop a new type of flexible, lightweight, and safe robot to help construction workers become more productive. The company says that although its pneumatic robots are flexible, they can lift heavier payloads and are much lighter than rigid robots of the same size.

Source: Canvas

The Future of Soft Robots

Production and delivery cycles continue to become shorter due to customer demand. This is driving the market for robots, collaborative robots (cobots), and automation to enable smart production and flexible processes that adapt to changing orders. Soft robotics promises to further accelerate this trend by opening up new possibilities and applications for robots and cobots across all industries. With safe, flexible, and adaptable grippers and robots, smart factories can harness the power of automation in areas that have never been possible before. I expect to see soft grippers sprouting out of more and more robot and cobot arms in the future as companies adopt this technology to enable a broad range of use cases.

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