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Control system cuts robot programming times to ‘minutes’

21 January, 2016

A Finnish research organisation has developed a control system for the industrial robots that, it claims, can cut the time taken to set up and program robots to “minutes”, rather than the hour or more needed when using traditional programming methods.

“The new solution significantly enhances the efficiency of productive operations and opens up new opportunities for utilising robots,” says Tapio Heikkilä, principal scientist at the VTT Technical Research Centre.

The system is aimed, in particular, at industrial robots used in short production runs of single-item products.

Unlike traditional robotic systems, which use only one torque/force sensor – or none at all – the new system uses two. One detects the pressure on the tool; the other is attached to a wireless control stick by which guides the robot step-by-step.

The stick and the control system operate together in real time, allowing a human operator to work in the same space as the robot and to control the robot's movements directly using the control stick, which is connected either to the robot or the load.

With the operator steering the robot from a short distance away, the interaction with the robot becomes easier, says VTT. Both the teaching of new tasks and paths, and direct control of the arm, become much faster than before, it adds. This is particularly useful when manufacturing test pieces and single-item products, because heavy objects – and even the entire assembly process – can be moved flexibly.

Traditionally, a robot's work path is programmed slowly one point at a time, and the robot repeats this predefined task unvaryingly. Reprogramming, or minor variations in factors such as the location of the items being handled, can cause errors.

VTT has used its technology to set up paths for robotic grinding systems

VTT says that quick programming of robots and human-robot interaction will become increasingly important in the era of the industrial Internet, when flexible production and short runs are essential for companies to remain competitive. Traditional hard automation is not good at handling such requirements.

“When the customer has a versatile range of single-item products to process, efficient partial automation may be a competitive solution,” Heikkilä suggests.

VTT hopes that its robot system will boost Finland's chances of succeeding as a manufacturing economy. It is suitable for tasks requiring a high level of expertise, where the robot does the hard work and people do the brainwork.

Data measured from the robot’s sensors can be stored using a cloud service, allowing various analyses to be run remotely. The robot's performance can also be monitored in real time via the Internet.

VTT says its control system can be applied to any robot with an open control interface. It was developed as part of the recently completed pan-European Hephestos project that involved nine research organisations and companies from six countries collaborating to develop tools and procedures for robot machining of small batches of hard materials. The participants in the three-year project included Fraunhofer IPK, Easy-Robot and ME Messsysteme from Germany, Comau Robotics from Italy, as well as organisations from Hungary, Spain and Norway.

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