Robotics technology has made measurable strides in the last few years. Today’s robots can move with greater precision over a more flexible range of motion, while handling heavier payloads. Advances in vision systems and software are giving robots the ability to recognize and handle a wider range of parts than before, and make decisions that only humans could previously perform.

Robots such as this Fanuc unit can automate painting of vehicles and other equipment.
Thanks to these advances, robot applications have gone beyond pick-and-place and welding to encompass a number of part handling tasks.

Advances in robot technology stem, in part, from the demands placed in applications such as aerospace. For instance, Gudel Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI), has developed a flexible, lightweight robot platform, called roboFlex, to meet tight tolerance requirements in aircraft manufacturing and other precision applications.

RoboFlex consists of a 5-axes robot arm which is fitted in a suspended position on a linear traveling axis. roboFlex makes it possible to position workpiece grippers and operating heads in any axis direction and angle required. The small mass guarantees very high dynamics and maximum rigidity and accuracy.

“The aerospace industry is drastically changing the way they manufacture aircraft and the materials being used,” said Dale Cozart, product manager of aerospace. “The suppliers must meet these challenges with advances in new technology of their own. New materials require new manufacturing processes and outside the box thinking.”

Ted Wodoslawskyl, vice president of marketing for the Robotics Division of ABB Inc. (Auburn Hills, MI), added, “There is a lot of activity in aerospace and also in solar panel manufacturing. In solar panels, robots are being used to handle solar cells during manufacturing and also soldering the individual cells into solar panels.”

Food processing and biomedical represent two emerging robot applications, according to Claude Dinsmoor, general manager of controller product development for Fanuc Robotics America Inc. (Rochester Hills, MI). “High-speed food processing with visual line tracking used to require lots of time with custom manufacturing equipment. Now, robots equipped with high-speed vision systems can do the work.”

Painting is another task now done largely with robots, Dinsmoor added. “Historically, because of automotive, robots are used for painting. In the U.S., almost all painting is done with robots.”

Aerospace is also moving rapidly to automated robotic painting, particularly for critical or high-performance coatings, noted Kirk McLauchlin, president of AeroBotics (Huntsville, AL), a robotic systems integrator. “Robots reduce preparation work, as you don’t have to premark and mask areas, and they also reduce rework.”

Jerry Perez, account manager for paintshop automation at FANUC Robotics Toledo, added that automated robotic painting makes it possible to program camouflage patterns off-line, and deal with variation in vehicles.

Robot manufacturers attribute recent advances largely to software improvements that have given robots more flexible motion capability and intelligence. Lloyd Spencer, chief executive for CoroWare Inc. (Redmond, WA), which develops software solutions for robotics applications, said early software algorithms controlling robots were “no more sophisticated than a set of wheels controlling a radiofrequency controlled toy car.” But Spencer added, “The incorporation of Linux and Window-based platforms now means you can run more complex apps that take advantage of layers of software.”

Early on, robots were programmed to perform repetitive tasks generally involving being taught, for example, to recognize a part with a specific size and shape, pick up that part, and move and place it on an assembly or reject it. Now, advanced software algorithms are giving robots the ability to sense and feel the parts they’re handling, noted ABB’s Ted Wodoslawskyl.