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Next generation of industrial robots heralds ‘a new era’

27 June, 2018

ABB is launching a new generation of industrial robots designed to provide users with more flexibility and a better return on investment. The new machines, due to be released over the next two to three years, will replace most of ABB’s existing portfolio, and will double the size of the company’s range.

ABB announced the new portfolio at the recent Automatica exhibition in the Germany, where it was also promoting several other developments, including:

•  a new generation of robot controllers with footprints 50% smaller than existing models;

•  the “world’s first” common interface for collaborative robots, developed jointly with Kawasaki;

•  a condition monitoring and diagnostics application that uses machine learning to detect behavioural anomalies in robots and offers guidance on predictive maintenance and optimisation;

•  a virtual meeting tool for ABB's RobotStudio virtual commissioning and simulation software;

•  the “world’s first” digitally connected paint atomiser that will allow car-makers to optimise robotic painting in real time, while reducing waste by 75% and compressed air consumption by 25%;  

•  a single-arm version of its YuMi two-armed collaborative robot (cobot); and

•  its SafeMove 2 software which, it claims, can turn any robot into a cobot.

Per Vegard Nerseth, managing director of ABB’s robotics business, describes the new generation of robots as the “the dawn of a new era in robotics.” Explaining the thinking behind the move, he says that “our customers are increasingly interested in exploring the potential of collaborative automation and digital solutions to improve their flexibility and performance. At the same time, they increasingly need purposeful, tailored solutions for unique applications. We are transforming our portfolio to meet this need today, and – more importantly – for tomorrow.”

Sami Atiya, president of ABB’s Robotics and Motion business, adds that “the needs of our customers in all industries are changing and will continue to change. ABB is helping them prepare for the future. Mass customisation is no longer a trend – it is the ‘new normal’ for many sectors and requires a higher level of flexibility that we are helping our customers to meet.”

The single-arm version of ABB's YuMi collaborative robot is the company's smallest and most agile robot

Details of the new generation of robots are still sketchy, although Nerseth says that they will represent “a completely new approach to designing robots”. They will offer more flexibility, with the ability to offer arms designed for specific tasks. Another factor driving the new designs is the need to maximise uptime, which Nerseth describes as “critical”. The first models of the new robots are expected to emerge later this year.

ABB’s compact new OmniCore robot controllers are designed to support high-mix, low-volume production and shorter product lifecycles. They can provide standardised or tailored motion control and deliver high path accuracies for increased throughput and reduced cycle times. They use a new generation of ABB’s RobotWare operating system (version 7), as well as supporting an ergonomic new FlexPendant programming terminal. Nine new members of the OmniCore family are due to be released over the next two years – all designed to connect to a variety of fieldbuses, vision systems and force controls.

The controllers will incorporate ABB’s SafeMove2 software, announced last year, which the company says can turn any robot into a collaborative device by adding extra safety functions. Steve Wyatt, head of marketing and sales at ABB Robotics, explains that rather than providing full cobot capabilities, the software allows robots and people to “co-exist” in same area – for example, it allows operators to replace parts in a cell safely.

ABB was also previewing “anomaly detection” software at Automatica which uses machine learning capabilities to determine whether a machine is behaving differently from normal. This information can be used to guide predictive maintenance programmes and, according to Wyatt, will “avoid surprises”.

Also at Automatica, ABB and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, announced and demonstrated what they claim is the world’s first common operating interface for collaborative robots. The interface is the result of a collaboration between the two companies that they announced last year. Aimed, in particular, at dual-arm cobots, it offers a simplified HMI display with smartphone-like navigation and icons. It allows users to teach movements and gripper actions to robot arms by moving them manually. ABB and Kawasaki see the easy programming method as a way of tackling the widespread skills shortage, exacerbated by an ageing workforce – especially in Japan. The two companies, which are also collaborating on safety standards, say that they are open to working with other robot manufacturers who are interested in adopting their operating interface.

Also on display at Automatica, was a single-arm version of ABB’s YuMi collaborative robot, which the company previewed in Japan late last year. The seven-axis IRB 14050 arm weighs less than 10kg and is ABB’s most compact and agile robot. It offers the same precision, ease-of-use and safety functions as the two-arm version launched in 2015. A small footprint, and the ability to mount the new arm on floors, tables, walls or ceilings, means that manufacturers can use it to add collaborative capabilities easily to existing production lines, with minimal interruption.

ABB has not yet revealed the price of the single-arm YuMi, which is aimed at applications such as precision handling and assembly of small parts. It could also be used to feed parts to a two-arm version to reduce cycle times. ABB expects to start taking orders for the new arm in November.

A demonstration on the ABB stand, developed in cooperation with Volkswagen, showed how it is now possible to synchronise the movement of robots to fit car doors to bodies as they move along the final trim and assembly section of automotive production lines. Wyatt describes, this capability, which relies on vision guidance and the SafeMove2 software, as “the last frontier in automotive automation”.

Finally, ABB’s new sensor-equipped paint atomiser system is said to allow car-makers to optimise paint quality in real time as it is being applied, rather than following a quality inspection afterwards. ABB predicts that the Ability Connected Atomiser will save millions of dollars by increasing transfer efficiencies by 10%, reducing atomiser waste during colour changes by 75%, reducing compressed air consumption by 20%, and doubling times between manual cleaning operations (to more than four hours).

The new common operating interface developed jointly by ABB and Kawasaki simplifies the programming of two-armed collaborative robots from both companies

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