Robots are nothing new in industrial assembly. For example, everyone has heard of the heavy yet highly precise one-armed soldering or painting robots of the auto industry. Such systems take over laborious and repetitive tasks, raising production quality and productivity. Still, most industrial robots have the disadvantantage of being very capital-intensive and reprogrammable only with great effort. For that reason, they are only profitable when used for large serial-capacity production, and they are not particularly known for their flexibility.
The trend of today’s fast-moving economy however lies more along the lines of shorter product life cycles, greater product variety and faster adaptation to new market requirements. More flexibility is the Holy Grail of industrial production.
pi4_workerbot: robot with human flexibility
pi4_robotics GmbH, a robotics and imaging specialist located in Berlin, Germany, has developed within the framework of the EU-aided research project PiSA (Assembly System Integrated Project) a new type of robot that brings human flexibility to industrial automation. The so-called pi4_workerbot is a compact robot that can take on many simple, unrefined tasks which previously had to be done by humans. The pi4_workerbot has been conceived to learn new tasks or to change from one job to another with little retraining, much like a human colleague.
Even though the pi4_workerbot is no humanoid robot, it does possess certain similarities to humans: its size (just under 2 meters / 6’ 6”) and proportions approximate those of a human, so that it needs about as much space as a person. Like a human, it has two highly movable arms, a head and eyes. It has no legs, precluding independent movement, but instead stands with full steering technology on a rolling platform, allowing it to be easily moved from one workstation to the next. The pi4_workerbot does require a power supply at its new workstation; otherwise, it brings everything else along.
Thanks to its built-in sensor array (cameras and power sensors built into its arms), the pi4_workerbot can “see” and “feel” what it grasps and manipulates. Thus, it is equipped to take on sensitive joining tasks and to self-monitor the quality of its own work.
Up to three eyes for superhuman powers of sight
One feature of the pi4_workerbot is its extensive configuration of industrial imaging technology. Depending upon the execution and formulation of tasks, it makes use of up to three digital cameras. For applications requiring spatial perception of the workspace, an optional time-of-flight camera is mounted in the middle of the head. For inspection tasks, two additional digital cameras from Allied Vision Technologies with different illumination units can be attached to the head. The cameras in question are area scan cameras with FireWire IEEE1394 interface such as the little AVT Guppy (IEEE 1394a) or the high-performance AVT Stingray (IEEE 1394b).
“Due to its flexible conception, for the pi4_workerbot we required not just one particular camera, rather an entire palette of cameras from which we can find the right one for the customer’s requirements,” explained Engineer Matthias Krinke, Managing Director of pi4_robotics. It is important that cameras can easily be integrated into the system and that the camera can easily be swapped out as needed for a new task. “Allied Vision Technologies’ FireWire digital cameras provide the optimal solution,” Krinke continued. “All of the AVT camera families, with their versatile selections of sensors and functions, can be added to the system with no problem. The FireWire interface, with its integrated power supply, is especially convenient and easy to switch out, allowing for a user-friendly plug-and-play functionality.” The pi4_workerbot is not fixed to a particular interface, however, according to Krinke. For example, digital cameras with Gigabit Ethernet interface can also be integrated.
Able to learn and easy to service
Crucial to the pi4_workerbot’s flexibility is its intelligent software. pi4_control is a software solution that combines imaging with machine control. Thus, inspection tasks can be programmed especially easily and efficiently, such as having the robot grasp objects and move them within the camera’s field of view to achieve optimal test quality. pi4_robotics and Allied Vision Technologies will be demonstrating a pi4_workerbot application at the AVT Stand at the VISION 2010 show in Stuttgart, where the robot will inspect chrome-plated Peugeot emblems for an automotive component supplier. The chrome-plated surface generates mirroring effects and light reflections that pose a challenge for testing with machine imaging. Moreover, the complex, angular form of the lion on the emblem requires that the part be turned to capture every edge and surface. Exactly as a human would, the pi4_workerbot holds the product in front of its (camera) eyes.
The pi4_control software coordinates not only the machine controls and the imaging, but excels as well with an especially simple user surface, thanks to which the pi4_workerbot can be reprogrammed to a new task quickly and without complication, even by trained personnel without extensive robot programming experience.
pi4_workerbot frees up humans in industrial fabrication
The pi4_workerbot’s potential range of applications is vast. For example, it can execute assembly, testing, or packaging tasks that could not have been automated before and were handled by unskilled workers. Thanks to the pi4_workerbot, such personnel-intensive tasks that for cost reasons would have previously been outsourced to low-wage countries can be kept on location in higher wage countries. Alternately, for workstations that place workers in peril – such as those involving the manipulation of chemicals or laser beams – the pi4_workerbot offers an interesting alternative.