Innovation That Matters

Robotic development | Photo source Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Robotic muscles could transform manufacturing processes


Controlled with an electric pulse, new vacuum grippers commonly used in manufacturing are quieter and work with a wider range of movements.

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The manufacturing sector is undergoing continuous transformation on many levels, from increased production efficiency to carbon footprint reduction. A new method of holding items in place has been developed by a team of researchers working at Saarland University and the Center for Mechatronics and Automation Technology in Saarbrücken (ZeMA). The result is a system of robotic muscles capable of holding things in order to allow for the application of other processes. Particularly useful in assembly-line manufacturing, the new vacuum grippers are powered by electricity rather than the traditional systems of compressed air. This makes for a potential transformation of many manufacturing processes. Compressed air is extremely loud and powered by heavy machinery. Electrically powered robot grippers, on the other hand, are much smaller, lighter and quieter. Working environments may not only be made safer, they may shrink as the space required to complete tasks becomes smaller.

The robotic grippers are built from bundles of ultrafine shape memory wires that work in much the same way as human muscle tissue. When an electric current is passed through the wires, the bundle contracts, shortening the “muscle.” When the current ceases, the muscle lengthens. Also equipped with sensors that allow the grippers to readjust if necessary, the capacity of the new system is scalable. This means that more wires will increase the robot’s strength. The sensory capability also makes the system intelligent. It can interpret measurement data to correctly position both the bundles of wires and the grippers. And should a component begin to wear down, the sensors will produce an alert, allowing for early and improved maintenance across the system.

Heavy machinery and manual labor are both being improved through a combination of new materials science approaches and smart wearables for health and safety. Recent innovations include smart work boots that help industrial workers keep in touch via toe-tapped codes. And a high power aqueous energy-storing device can be charged in less than 30 seconds from a low power source such as USB or photovoltaic cell. What are some unexpected ways in which robotic innovation could be applied to the workplace for new human-robot partnerships?



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