Two-year-old Boston startup Empire Robotics will unveil a new revolutionary gripper archetype at this year’s International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. Called Versaball, the soft-robotics gripper can flexibly adapt to multiple, automated manufacturing tasks.
Developed at Cornell University and the University of Chicago with funding from Darpa, Versaball is a squishy balloon membrane full of loose sub-millimeter particles. The soft ball gripper easily conforms around a wide range of target object shapes and sizes. Using a process known as “granular jamming”, air is quickly sucked out of the ball, which vacuum-packs the particles and hardens the gripper around the object to hold and lift it. The object releases when the ball is reinflated.
“Think vacuum-packed bags of coffee that remain hard as a rock until you break the seal. The attachment is very simple and doesn’t even have any electronic components,” says Empire’s research and development director, Nadia Cheng, who’s also testing the gripper as a prosthetic hand.
Historically, robot integrators have spent a great deal of engineering resources designing specialized and varied grippers for industrial production. To meet the demands of agile manufacturing — typically with a low-volume, high-mix series of tasks — automating production involves frequent reprogramming and retooling.
For many companies, the final solution often combines expensive mechanical, vacuum, and magnetic grippers into a complex end-of-arm tool that is highly specific to the application and not easily adaptable or reusable.
In contrast to traditional, fixed tooling, Empire Robotics Versaball delivers an out-of-the-box, multitask solution that easily adapts to a variety of tasks. Versaball gripper will be mounted on Universal Robots’ UR5 robot at the IMTS in order to illustrate how the Versaball attached to a UR robot arm offers an optimal choice for safe, collaborative robot applications with humans working in close proximity to robots on agile manufacturing tasks.
Unlike hard grippers, the balloon-shaped Versaball conforms to and grips a wide range of objects without reprogramming. The new end-of-arm tool will pick and place objects ranging from light gearwheels to heavy bricks and delicate light bulbs — all in the same cycle without any changes to the application.
“Empire Robotics’ Versaball is one of the most unique new gripper technologies on the market,” said Ed Mullen, National Sales Manager with Universal Robots in North America. “We foresee the Versaball gripper as having the same, positive impact on collaborative robotics as our robot arm has had. The fact that the gripper is soft between grips and can be deployed on the fly further extends the safety and flexibility benefits of our robot arms.”
“By providing an easy and safe-to-implement robot at an affordable price, Universal Robots has become the industrial robotics leader in the agile robot trend,” said Bill Culley, President of Empire Robotics. “Our Versaball gripper compliments the flexibility of the UR5 and UR10 robots with an end-of-arm gripping solution that has minimal impact on the bottom line and shrinks time between product cycles, pushing robotics into small- and medium-sized manufacturing facilities.”
Image courtesy of EmpireRobotics