You don’t think twice about picking your phone off the table because you are not a robot. If you were, the simple process could result in disaster as you could destroy the phone by either gripping it too hard and crushing it or not gripping hard enough, and the phone drops to its doom on the hard surface. However, robot hands are about to get a lot better at grabbing things, with the breakthrough recorded by an engineering team in the National University of Singapore, NUS.
The team has created a reconfigurable hybrid robotics system that can grip different objects, ranging from small to large, light to heavy, hard to delicate. This new technology will impact several industries that quickly pick and sort items.
The engineering team was led by Raye Yeow, an associate professor in the university’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.
In the design of the robotics hand, the team used hybrid grippers with soft and flexible 3D-printed fingers on a reconfigurable gripper base.
According to Yeow, “An object’s shape, texture, weight, and size affect how we choose to grip them. This is one of the main reasons why many industries still heavily rely on human labor to package and handle delicate items. Our hybrid robotic gripper technology revolutionizes traditional pick-and-place tasks by offering advanced capabilities that allow robots to safely interact with delicate items of various shapes, sizes, and stiffness, just like the human hand.”
The robot hand uses computer vision and deep learning to detect the type of object it wants to pick up. It also notes the position, which helps it to automatically decide the best way to pick the object without crushing or dropping it. To handle a wide variety of objects, the robot hand can configure itself on demand.
The stiffness has to be just right, and the team designed a novel locking mechanism for the air-driven fingers. At the end of the day, the team produced three different types of hybrid robotic gripper systems.
One of the gripper systems is GourmetGrip, ideal for handling small pieces usually found in the food processing industry. For instance, GourmetGrip can package delicate tofu into take-out boxes without ruining the snacks. It is configurable so that it can work in a variety of situations.
GourmetGrip can pick and place food items at the speed of humans but has the advantage of working for long periods without fatigue. It can also work consistently. This grip can handle more than 50 types of food items like pudding, sliced cake, vegetables, and fruits.
The second gripper is the UnisoGrip. This type has even broader applications and can pick items from an assembly line and package them into the boxes in the final stages of shipping and transporting goods. Apart from soft rotatable fingers, the UnisoGrip has a suction cup for manipulating awkwardly shaped objects.
The UnisoGrip can handle items up to 30 centimeters in width and weigh up to 3 kg. The engineering team reckons it has a 20 percent better grip than other commercially available grippers. It can grip more than 30 items, including bottled drinks, packs of coffee powder, detergent packs, etc.
The last gripper is based on either the GourmetGrip or UnisoGrip but can be customized to fit customer needs and any space constraints in production. As such, it can handle more diverse objects.
Companies using grippers from the NUS team include People Bee Hoon Factory, a rice vermicelli manufacturer. The firm uses the grippers to pack its rice vermicelli into carton boxes efficiently.
Director of People Bee Hoon Factory, Desmond Goh, explained why his company opted for the grippers:
“Most of our existing staff are mature workers, so we sought to tap on new technology that can ease the workload of our existing staff, while simultaneously boosting their productivity. We selected this technology because it is able to meet our purpose and provides flexibility for different deployments that we require.”