The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) wants to help turn manufacturing robots into dexterous, nimble-fingered machines—affordable mechanical helpers that can easily handle different types of objects and flexibly assist human workers at even small U.S. factories.
At a January 24, 2013, workshop in Chicago, Ill., NIST researchers and their partners from industry will be asking manufacturers to identify where in assembly and other production-related operations dexterous robots would provide the biggest boost to their capabilities and process efficiency. Sponsored by the Robotics Industry Association, the NIST Workshop on Dexterous Manipulation for Manufacturing Applications will be held in conjunction with Automate 2013, a biennial conference and trade show focusing on process automation.
Three sessions will feature presentations by industry leaders on dexterous grasping, robot arm technology, and flexible manufacturing. Each session will conclude with an open-format panel discussion on needs and opportunities for dexterous manipulation in next-generation manufacturing systems, especially for low-volume production runs.
Today's manufacturing robots are largely limited to performing repetitive, and sometimes, dangerous, tasks such as spot welding or picking and placing heavy parts. Typically, they require expensive, customized tooling, and for safety reasons, are situated in cordoned-off workspaces.
When the dimensions or shape of an assembly part are altered, tool changers are used to swap out a robot's grippers or other so-called end-effector devices that are customized for specialized tasks. This high degree of specialization greatly increases product changeover time and cost.
A goal of researchers at universities and companies around the world is to develop robot grippers with flexibility and sensitivity approaching that of the human hand. If effective, reliable, and affordable, such dexterous end-effectors would transform how and where robots are used in manufacturing, opening the way to new ways of making things in both large and small batches.
The number of promising, but still experimental designs of robots and associated tooling that can nimbly wield parts of various shapes and sizes is growing, says engineer Joseph Falco, who leads the NIST Project Dexterous Manipulation for Part Grasping and Assembly. "This is a good time for all types of manufacturers to take note of these developments and to think about how they might make the best use of these emerging technologies and capabilities in their operations," Falco explains.
A goal of the NIST project is to develop a prototype measurement system to gauge the performance of still-experimental universal robotic grasping tools with novel geometries and articulation, including hand-like designs hands. Information gathered at the workshop will help guide work toward this goal and others that Falco and his team are pursuing. Workshop input will be summarized in a future publication.
For information on the NIST Project Dexterous Manipulation for Automation Systems, go to: http://www.nist.gov/el/isd/ms/rssm.cfm.