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Collaborative robots offer advances in automation

By: Frank Antosiewicz

July 22, 2013

WEST SPRINGFIELD, MASS. — The collaborative robot — a robot able to work freely around humans — is touted by its supporters as an attractive automation option for small manufacturers.

Two quite different machines, but both part of the collaborative class, were on display at the recent Eastec trade show, sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in Springfield.

Learning to train Baxter

At the Gibson Engineering Co. Inc. booth, the Baxter robot was lifting circular plastic parts off a conveyor and placing them in a box.

What was intriguing was that programming was done by grabbing Baxter's arm and showing "him" the task to be performed.

"Instead of programming it, you grab and teach it how," said Robert MacDonald, director of sales and marketing for Gibson Engineering of Norwood, Mass., a Rethink distributor for New England, northern New Jersey and metro New York.

Baxter uses a camera to track a product on a conveyor, then picks it up and places it in a box. He said that it works with a piece that is 5 pounds or less, and that it takes about a half hour for setup and instruction of its use.

"A lot of times when we bring Baxter to a customer. It is not programming, but it is really teaching and we get the operators to do it," said MacDonald.

Harley Green, Gibson project specialist for Baxter, works each day with the robot, and notes that it is a continuing process. Each update allows it to do more. He said that Baxter draws interest in many different sectors, ranging from manufacturing to handling money for investment companies and banks.

Baxter was developed by Rethink Robotics Inc. Mitch Rosenberg, the company's vice president of marketing and product management, said a number of plastic manufacturers and medical equipment companies have purchased a Baxter.

Universal Robots' arm does repetitive tasks

Axis New England of Danvers, Mass., was showcasing a sorting and testing setup with the Universal Robots' arm placing wooden blocks in boxes. It also did not need an enclosure and is able to work alongside an operator.

Ed Mullen, national sales manager, said the robotic arm, which is made in Denmark, has generated a lot of interest.

He said its low cost allows for small- and medium-sized manufacturers to use more automation.

He said the Danish facility is turning out about 100 machines a month and that growth has tripled every year in the last four years.

Mullen said that a big difference from traditional robots is the cost of training and programming. This flexible unit can be programmed quickly and reprogrammed again when the product use changes. It is all done through a graphical user interface.

In injection molding, it can be used for packaging tasks as well as to trim flashing off finished products.