Robots advance with connectivity, collaboration, easier programming

Cover Story: Advanced robotic developments include improved designs for safety and specialized environments, collaborative applications, better integration with other systems, and augmented monitoring to reduce risk of downtime and lower maintenance costs. See photo gallery, links to five videos of robots.

By Emily Guenther, Mark T. Hoske, Chris Vavra December 7, 2016

Robotic advances include modifications for safety and specialized environments, collaborative applications, improved integration with other systems, and better monitoring systems to reduce risk of downtime and lower maintenance costs. Information that follows includes announcements from International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) 2016 and Pack Expo International 2016 in Chicago, in September and November, and Automation Fair in November in Atlanta.

Robot integration: Simpler setup of automated machine cells

Robots are becoming easier to connect with machine tools. The Siemens Sinumerik 828 CNC family offers a faster, less complicated means of connecting robots to machine tools, which has become an integral part of automated production cell set-up. (See Figure 1.)

Different types of robots designed by different manufacturers can now be connected to CNC machines equipped with the Sinumerik 828D family using the Sinumerik Integrate Run MyRobot / EasyConnect interface to perform handling tasks. This enables companies of any size to setup automated cells, including serial machines, cost-effectively and without major effort, even with different types of CNCs using the same standard interface. Additional features for automated cell setup are simple optimization of work processes on machine tools, mobile condition monitoring, and remote maintenance. 

Standards-based interface

The interface is based upon a standard defined by the German Machine Tool Builders’ Association (VDW is the German acronym) and the German Engineering Association (VDMA) for connecting robots or handling systems to machine tools. To make it as easy as possible to use the interface, the robots are connected through Ethernet (Profinet RT) or using I/O signals. In doing so, operators can easily synchronize processes between the machine tool and robots, thereby positioning efficient processes in the automated production cell.

Automated work processes, an important aspect of automated cell setup, covers all aspects of machine tools. These processes begin with preparatory work to accessing all necessary information and data at the machine and efficiently operating the machine, including use of mobile terminal equipment for visualizing machine conditions. Siemens provides smart operation features, where smart touch technologies are being integrated into the production environment. Simultaneously, machine operators can access the factory network and can inspect contract documents at the user interface. The concept also includes an application for prep work on the PC—for example, the creation of part programs. Functions facilitating remote diagnosis of machine tools are another component of the solution for automated cell setup. 

Data exchange

With Sinumerik Integrate Access MyMachine, Siemens provides convenient and reliable functionality for remote diagnostics using a corporate network or Internet access. The basic Access MyMachine / P2P application facilitates the exchange of data with connected machines from a Microsoft Windows PC. An IP address is used for addressing purposes within the plant network. Machine tool operators can access the machine over the Internet or outside the company network if the application is appropriately configured. Sinumerik Integrate Access MyMachine / Ethernet (ASP) provides a quick overview of the machine history in addition to machine access. The Sinumerik CNC permits the uploading and downloading of machine data, files, trip recorders, and configurable PLC traces. Text message (SMS) or e-mail notifications in cases of unusual machine conditions are also possible. ASP allows cost-efficient monitoring of fault states and comprehensive integration of in-house service and maintenance processes.

Robotics for safety applications

Companies look to robots to perform tasks in hazardous environments that could be dangerous, repetitive, or too fast or precise for humans to do. As robots get more sophisticated and can perform more efficiently, the potential number of uses increases.

At Pack Expo, a Yaskawa Motoman robot (Figure 2, part of the cover image) worked in a robotic depalletizing cell in front of an updated Alvey 891i palletizer from Intelligrated with an integrated with vertical reciprocating conveyor and motor driven roller (MDR) conveyor. See more about related IntelliGen palletizing software for robotic operations below.

Denso Robotics demonstrated a robot at Pack Expo that is designed for aseptic pharmaceutical settings where hydrogen peroxide is present. It is designed to provide automation in clean environments and prevent foreign matter from manual tasks and human error. "It is set up to live in a sterilized environment for processing small assembly products," said Peter Cavallo, robotic sales manager, Denso.

Cavallo added there has been increased demand for a robot that could work in such an environment since they started work on the project 2 years ago. "We got the request from customers who were looking for a robot that could handle this kind of work," said Cavallo.

Other applications the robot can be used for include regenerative medicine and cell culture. These are very delicate, precise applications that might not have been conceivable a few years ago. Technology advances continue to break down potential barriers, and now they’re going into arenas where they could have a major impact on worker safety. This is especially true if they’re designed to work collaboratively with humans.

More benefits and opportunities for collaborative robotics

Collaborative robots provide benefits and open opportunities in various industrial applications.

At Pack Expo, one of the main concepts was the presence of collaborative robots and the bright future they have in optimizing and creating opportunities for various industrial applications. While automating processes isn’t new, implementing and realizing the return on investment (ROI) behind them are highlighted among many manufacturers. The primary philosophy with collaborative robots is that they will work alongside human workers, not replace them, helping to optimize operations. Collaborative robotics can:

  • Reduce risk. With collaborative robotics, the risk significantly goes down on a plant floor. Instead of having personnel work in a high-risk environment, a robot can work in those areas. Robots also can be added to areas that would be too hazardous for a human to work in.
  • Improve quality and quantity control. Humans err, and robots can be programmed to do the same job without error to speed up processes without risk to quality. While a robot’s health status is important and needs to be maintained to ensure optimal performance, performance is more predictable than a human’s.
  • Create growth opportunities for workers. Humans may express concern about robots displacing workers. A keyword in collaborative robotics is "collaborative." "Robotics aren’t replacing human workers per say, but giving them the opportunity to expand a worker’s skill set by learning how to program robots, become robot technicians, and robot maintenance," said John Weber, senior project manager at Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc
  • Add flexibility. A growing application for collaborative robotics is in short-line processes because of greater flexibility compared to traditional robotics. Kawasaki demonstrated a dual-armed, collaborative robot that can be wheeled where needed (see Figure 3); Kawasaki duAro robots operated on a simulated line and another served ice cream (see video linked below).
  • Increase economy. In recent years, manufacturing robots have become more cost-effective to integrate into a facility’s operations. Smaller robots can easily be maintained and controlled with just a mobile app.

Allied Technology, a Universal Robots system integrator, showcased a vision-guided packaging and palletizing application featuring the UR5 robot arm picking chocolates out of an intelligent part feeder, arranging them by color, kitting them in a box, and palletizing the completed assemblies. The flexibility of a robot arm allows it to be integrated into many processes on a plant floor.

In another Universal Robots application, with the Automated Cosmetic Inspection system from HNJ Solutions, "customers can add new products to the system as needed, and the arm can articulate through just about any product orientation requirement," said Greg McEntyre, CEO of HNJ Solutions. "The collaborative nature of the arm allows us to reach outside the machine environment and automatically handle components that are located near production line personnel." (See the UR image on the cover, at top of this page, two other UR-related images on the last page of this post and another in the following December article: "Easier, safer robotic programming is among results from an expanding open-source robotics software group.")

Collaborative robots are dependable, integrate easily with existing operations, and address a growing shortage of industrial workers. Collaborative robotics is a pill that is easier to swallow while many plant facilities are adjusting to the movement toward automation and related operational benefits.

At IMTS, Universal Robots launched Universal Robots+ in North America; it’s an app store for Universal Robots end-effectors, grippers, software, vision cameras, and other accessories, designed, tested, and certified to work with UR robot arms. Booth demonstrations included some offered in UR+ from Robotiq, Sick, OnRobot, and Airgate. 

Collaborative robots assemble, fill boxes

Collaborative robots are able to work with humans in some applications without traditional safety cages, also can work with each other, as shown in a Pack Expo demonstration (Figure 4) from Rethink Robotics

Photos and online video show Sawyer from Rethink Robotics using a pneumatic actuator to lift a box, position it over a guide to open the box, and position for flaps for taping the bottom of the box. (No taper is shown, but it could be positioned under the square frame between the robots.) Baxter from Rethink Robotics then fills the formed box with plastic bottles, explained Thomas Miller, sales application specialist, Rethink Robotics.

The robots shown do not communicate with each other directly; embedded vision and visual positioning indicators are used. Software upgrades from Rethink Robotics are available free for the robots and automatically can add functionality and speed to robot hardware performance without changes to the hardware, Miller noted.

Applications vary widely for collaborative robots, including machine tending, kitting, and light assembly. In a recent statement, Rethink Robotics noted that Sawyer improved Deco Lighting’s assembly time by 1,200%. By deploying Sawyer on each assembly line, Deco Lighting can explore using Sawyer robots to keep production running during off hours, further shortening lead time for customers.

Wireless control enhances safety

Industrial wireless communications can control robots to reduce risk to humans, as demonstrated at the HMS booth at Automation Fair.

An HMS Anybus Wireless Bolt access point (about half the size of a hockey puck; not shown) moved commands from the controls enclosure for the slitting machine to the control cabinet for the Fanuc robot above (Figure 5). The robot replaces the slitting-machine blades as needed to maintain quality and does so more quickly and without risk to humans. (The blades are very sharp.) Wireless transmission is made via Bluetooth or WLAN technology. The Wireless Bolt can connect devices using serial, CAN, or Ethernet. 

Increasing robotic collaboration

Fanuc America Corp., expected to offer collaborative robots early in 2017, showed potential offerings at IMTS and at Pack Expo. IMTS visitors saw demonstrations of Fanuc CR-4iA, CR-7iA table-top size collaborative robots, and the CR-35iA heavy-payload collaborative robot, explained below with information from Fanuc. The CR-7iA, CR-7iA/L, and CR-4iA collaborative robots follow the launch of the larger CR-35iA collaborative robot. They have "highly-sensitive contact detection allowing them to share workstations with people," said Greg Buell, product manager, Fanuc America, and allow "the robot to perform more strenuous tasks or repetitive operations without the need for expensive industrial safety barriers."

Demonstrations included vision-guided gear picking and placing into a gearbox to build and then disassemble three assemblies. The same CR-7iA/L collaborative robot moves to a second station and picks a relay, presents it to an error proofing camera to verify that the part is acceptable, then inserts the relay into a circuit board. The robot then disassembles the circuit board, and the cycle repeats. The robot can safely interact with an operator, handle different part types, and work on a mobile platform. For a list of benefits, see more information with this article online. 

Fanuc moves into collaborative robotics

The new Fanuc CR-7iA, CR-7iA/L, and CR-4iA collaborative robots provide features and benefits, including: 

  • Three compact variants offering 550-911mm reach and 4-7kg payload capabilities
  • Floor, wall, and ceiling mounting options
  • Safety-rated contact detection and familiar green exterior color
  • Designed with the same high reliability as Fanuc’s conventional robots
  • Works in cooperation with a human operator in a variety of manufacturing applications
  • Supports Fanuc intelligent functions, such as iRVision and Force Sensing
  • Designed to meet the safety requirements of ISO 10218-1:2011 and RIA/ANSI R15.06-2012
  • Operates with the small R-30iB Mate controller, capable of running on 120 V.

Avoiding robot downtime

At Pack Expo, the Fanuc Intelligent Edge Link and Drive (FIELD) system demonstrated advanced analytics and deep learning capabilities for Fanuc CNCs and robots, peripheral devices, and sensors used in automation systems.

The FIELD system allows applications, such as Zero Down Time (ZDT, Figure 6) or capabilities such as deep learning or machine learning, to be applied in the edge level of a factory site, as explained in material from Fanuc. The FIELD system is based on edge computing where a large amount of data is processed within the manufacturing site, minimizing the volume and cost of sharing data, while providing a secure connection to the cloud for suitable applications. Such data on the system from various machines also can be used for collaboration among equipment, performance optimization, improved traceability, and quality control.

For developing the system, Fanuc collaborated with Cisco, Rockwell Automation, and Preferred Networks, a provider of artificial intelligence (AI) software.

FIELD hardware and software allows multiple external computing devices to be added to the plant network securely. The software suite has open source and proprietary licensable products (from Cisco and Preferred Network). After software loading and configuration, machine data from all automation equipment including CNC machines and robots can then be accessible to application developers through an open application programming interface (API). The easy access to machine data significantly reduces the effort for a third party to develop applications to run on the FIELD system, providing monitoring, analytic, and real-time functions.

Interconnections with robots and Rockwell Automation programmable automation controllers (PACs) also were shown. Joe Gazzarato, director of product development, Fanuc America, expected the FIELD system to "enable new applications that can drive significant improvements in machine reliability, quality, flexibility, and speed to elevate manufacturing efficiency and profitability." The FIELD system is scheduled for release by year-end 2016. 

No down time

ZDT collects data from more than 6,000 robots in 26 factories. ZDT monitors these robots to see if the application is causing abnormal wear that could lead to a failure, and if so, Fanuc sends parts with support to address the issue before downtime occurs. With ZDT, Fanuc tracks robot usage and sends reminders at appropriate intervals to ensure important maintenance activities are completed on time. As wider use of the FIELD system and ZDT, Fanuc expects to help more customers with intelligent, condition-based maintenance notifications and help optimize robot performance and life.

At the show, a ZDT data collector running on a Cisco UCS (server) collected data on robots in the booth and sent it to the cloud. A monitor showed robot health data available in the cloud such as RV, motor, E-stop, energy usage, maintenance reminders, etc.

"The convergence of Internet of Things and industrial manufacturing has begun. Connectivity to equipment on the factory floor is growing at a rapid pace," added Gazzarato. "This connectivity opens the door to new sources of data enabling applications that can leverage this data to deliver real business value."

Rockwell Automation, FIRST Robotics

Rockwell Automation (NYSE:ROK), at its Automation Fair, announced a 4-year, $12 million, commitment to the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) organization, created to inspire youth to participate in science and technology, education, and math (STEM). Rockwell has made prior donations and provided support in the last 10 years for addressing the critical need to fill STEM jobs. Many such jobs go unfilled because of both the lack of awareness of the kinds of high-tech jobs available and the lack of skills to qualify for today’s needs. The skills gap has been a challenge for many manufacturers and automation companies as the workforce grows older.

Rockwell has worked with FIRST before as a global sponsor of the FIRST LEGO League program (See Figure 7) and sponsor of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), nearly 200 Rockwell Automation employees around the world donate time for the FIRST programs, and more than 300 employees volunteer for the organization in other capacities. The company also donates products for the FIRST Robotics Competition playing fields and scoring systems, and they are included within the parts kits teams use to build robots.

Rockwell Automation is recognized as a FIRST Strategic Partner, the highest levels of sponsorship available at FIRST and as a FIRST Robotics Competition Crown Supplier. 

Integrated robotics, motion control

The Intelligrated IntelliGen palletizing software for robotic operations offers easy adjustment of layer patterns and load configurations for improved flexibility, speed, and load integrity, as explained at Pack Expo.

The new software allows operations to easily adjust pallet load configuration without the need for extra programming or cumbersome integration. It is designed for robotic palletizing operations that handle various product types and sizes and allows operators to simply adjust load patterns and stacking characteristics based on changing product dimensions and other variables, offering improved flexibility, speed, and load integrity.

The software comes integrated with the robotic cell’s standard control system and allows facility operations personnel to select user-defined load configurations, greatly simplifying product changeovers. Load configurations, patterns, and product sizes can be adjusted without the need to make a service call or leverage complex external software programs. Minimum training is required for use; advanced functionality also includes row-forming and case-turning, enabling multiple-piece picks and drops on multiple rows and yielding higher rates than competitive alternatives. Intelligrated, now part of Honeywell, offers intelligent automated material handling solutions for retailers, manufacturers, and logistics providers. 

Safety zone, CNC, robotic integration

At IMTS, Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc. showed a variety of robots and safety automation, including Mitsubishi Melfa SafePlus safety zone technology, sensors that can be installed to create a cage-free safety zone around a conventional robot, slowing speed if anyone enters a cautionary area and stopping in the red zone closest to the robot without a full shutdown. Mitsubishi Melfa SafePlus can be used with any robot 20 kg or below and represents the future of robots operating in the open, said Scott Zeller, manager FESG Midwest region, Mitsubishi. Three larger robots sharing the same frame size but varying by payload (30 kg, 45 kg, or 70 kg) became available this year, resulting in about a dozen orders, almost immediately, Zeller said. Mitsubishi Electric Automation M800s CNCs with controls integrated into the in-panel unit, also were among highlighted technologies.

Kuka Connect software was introduced to North America at IMTS. The software platform connects Kuka robots to the cloud. Using Kuka Connect, customers can access and analyze robots’ data on any device, anywhere, at any time. Built on open global standards, Kuka Connect securely leverages cloud computing technologies and Big Data analytics to provide customers maximum visibility into connected Kuka robots. The subscription-based platform requires zero software installation and provides customers immediate access to new features and functionalities.

Yaskawa Motoman at IMTS, showed collaborative robots, mobile robotics, and machine vision interaction with robotics for human-robot collaborative applications, material handling, mobile handling and logistics, vision, and welding applications. Highlights included:

  • New mobile manipulation technology for multiple handling operations or logistics tasks
  • New handling robot with IP67 rating with an easy-to-clean surface for use in harsh environments; photo (Figure 9) shows how cables and hoses can run inside the robot.
  • New hardware/software that uses one 3-D machine vision head for random bin picking
  • Arc welding workcell suited for high-mix / low-volume production
  • High-precision assembly with integrated, vision-guided force sensing and Functional Safety Unit (FSU) for collaborative operator interaction
  • Robots for arc and spot welding applications
  • Slim robotic part positioner with a 17% smaller width than standard positioners
  • Collaborative robot designed to work safely with or in close proximity to humans. 

Picking, placing, maintenance

ABB showed robotic picking, packing, and palletizing demos at Pack Expo, as well as robotic maintenance packages. Robotic-related highlights included:

High-speed picking with the ABB FlexPicker and SCARA (selective compliance articulated robot arm) robots: A high-speed, pick-and-place demo featuring the ABB IRB 360 FlexPicker delta robot and a model from ABB’s recently introduced SCARA robot line. The delta robot is available in 1 kg, 3 kg and 8 kg (17.64 lb) variants at the standard 1,130 mm (44.5 in.) reach and 1 kg and 6 kg variants at the extended 1,600 mm (63 in.) reach. The 8 kg model provides a robust solution for handling heavier individual products, heavier tooling, and larger product groupings. The 1 kg and 3 kg FlexPickers are available in an IP69K rated stainless model, and the 6 kg and 8 kg models are available with IP67 protection for most hygienic applications.

The IRB 910SC is ABB’s first line of SCARA robots. It is designed to emphasize speed and accuracy and is suitable for general-purpose applications requiring fast, repeatable and articulate point-to-point movements. One arm robot can operate in a confined space and is tabletop mountable. The maximum payload is 6 kg, available in reaches of 450 mm, 550 mm, and 650 mm (25.6 in.).

New Soft Robotics grippers (Figure 10) are available to manipulate items of varying size, shape, and weight with one device. These can be used for warehousing, manufacturing, and food processing environments where the uncertainty and variety of products being handled have precluded use of automation.

ABB YuMi Collaborative Robot needs no barriers, no cages, and no zones for most applications. ABB called it the "world’s first truly collaborative dual-arm industrial robot," first introduced at Hannover Messe 2015. YuMi packaging applications include kitting of multiple components into packages, component assembly, and packing of fragile materials. Lightweight and rigid magnesium skeleton is covered with a floating plastic casing and wrapped in soft padding to absorb impacts. Compact size is comparable to human-like dimensions and movements, making human coworkers feel safe and comfortable.

High-speed palletizing: The IRB 460, said to be the fastest palletizer in its class, is designed to meet the high throughput requirements of end-of-line and bag palletizing applications. The cell included Robot Studio Palletizing PowerPac software for easy set-up and programming. ABB FlexGrippers are capable of up to 2,190 cycles per hour; the 4-axis IRB 460 has a reach of 2.4 meters, occupies 20% less floor space and runs 15% faster than its nearest rival, ABB said.

ABB Customer Service—Connected Services is an interconnected 24/7 ecosystem that ABB refers to as the Internet of Things, services, and people. All ABB robots are ready to be connected, wirelessly or hard-wired, offering predictive, proactive, and immediate support. Connected Services all leverage actionable data transferred via sophisticated software from connected robots worldwide. Five Connected Services can be tailored to meet customer applications: condition monitoring and diagnostics, backup management, remote access, fleet assessment, and asset optimization.

For more on robotic programming, see related article in this issue: "Easier, safer robotic programming is among results from an expanding open-source robotics software group."

Contributors to this report are Emily Guenther, associate content manager,; Chris Vavra, production editor,; and Mark T. Hoske, content manager,, Control Engineering, CFE Media, in addition to source materials from some of the companies mentioned.


Key concepts

  • Collaborative robotics offerings expand deeper into traditional robot manufacturers
  • Cloud-connected services aim to increase robot reliability, functionality
  • Integration is easier with other systems, such as CNCs.

Consider this

As lower cost and easier to setup and robots are available, what applications in your location may be ready for robotics?  

ONLINE extra

More text appears in the posting above than would fit in this five-page cover story.

Also see the other robotics cover story in this issue, about open-source robotic programming.

See related July 2015 Control Engineering cover story.

More details, vendor links, 9 more images and 5 video links follow. 

Other links and information

MagneMotion is part of Rockwell Automation. 

More information about Siemens CNCs are available.  

Online photo gallery, video links

See links to five newly posted video clips at

Also see the related Control Engineering video: "Integrated drive, motor, gear unit saves 60% electricity compared to traditional products."

See other Control Engineering videos.