ROBOTS: Self-Guided, ‘Humanoid’ Robot Varieties Proliferate

Two-armed robots with vision and other sensors now come with expressive 'faces.'

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The new look in robots is two arms and a “head” with a “face.” Such robots are equipped with vision and other sensors so that they can operate without supervision and react to ordinary variations in timing or position that can occur on the production floor. What’s more, these new-generation robots are designed for lead-through “teach” programming by workers with no special training. Generally, they’re designed for machine loading/unloading, product inspection and packaging, and other pick-and-place functions that don’t require extreme speed or precision (though both qualities have been improving).

The model of this sort of robot that first drew attention from plastics molders is the Baxter from Rethink Robotics, Boston (see Nov. ’13, Close Up). It’s called a “collaborative” robot, because it’s equipped with safety devices so it can work in proximity to humans without an enclosure or guarding. It’s distinctive for its “face” on a small LCD screen that changes expression to indicate the robot’s status or what task it is focused on, indicated by where the “eyes” appear to be looking. There’s another collaborative model that lacks a
“face”—the Universal Robot from Universal Robots of Denmark, which has several U.S. distributors.

Another humanoid robot that resembles the Baxter—including its expressive face—is the workerbot3 (photo), a third-generation model from pi4_robotics GmbH in Berlin, Germany (no U.S. distributor). Managing director Matthias Krinke cautions that this is not a collaborative-type robot that needs no safety precautions against interactions with humans. (It can integrate with light curtains, etc.) But similar to the Baxter, it has two six-axis jointed arms
(vs. seven axes on the Baxter), and also has 180° rotation at the “waist.” Each arm has a stereo vision camera and vacuum gripper that can handle up to 500 g. The first-generation workerbot appeared at K 2010 in Dusseldorf and the newest version performed at October’s Fakuma 2014 show in Friedrichshafen. One German molder using the workerbot is Ehlebracht Kunststoff-Technik.