Sophisticated End of Arm Tooling Enhances Automated Manufacturing

When the term “Gripper” is used, many will visualise a simple set of pneumatically or mechanically operated jaws, or perhaps even vacuum cups. Whilst this is technically still a valid perception for some applications, the truth is that Gripping technology, or to use the alternative term – End of Arm Tooling, has come a long way as it has evolved to keep pace with, and in many cases enhance, the operation of robot systems and special purpose machines.

This article from Zimmer Group UK’s Ian Sinclair explores some of the advances in End of Arm Tooling technology which demonstrates that in many cases, what was once termed a gripper is now a sophisticated automation module in its own right.

Grippers have changed dramatically over the years from the once basic unit that would simply hold a component during transfer, to become in many cases, technology based modules capable of performing sensing, measurement, re-orientation or process operations.

Key contributors to this ongoing process of evolution have been the readily available electronic, pneumatic and mechanical components which themselves have become both more compact, sophisticated and cost effective. This, together with innovative design concepts, has led to the development of a whole series of sophisticated and often intelligent gripper / end of arm tooling modules.

(What were once just termed grippers have in many cases now evolved into sophisticated end of arm tooling modules)

Zimmer Group’s Ian Sinclair explains: “Where in the past, the technology used to hold or manipulate components was usually relatively simple, today it is often the opposite. For example, it is not uncommon now to find our latest E-Gripper technology being used for small parts handling, where users can take advantage of adjustable gripping forces and variable jaw strokes. This provides much greater levels of flexibility without the need for manual intervention, where different part variants may need to be processed either at random or in sequence.”

Another growing trend with end of arm tooling is the use of bespoke designed multi-function modules. These can incorporate not just the gripping mechanisms needed to pick and manipulate products, but also incorporate one or more production processes.

Ian Sinclair continues:” Incorporating one or more technologies within the end of arm tooling on a robot system increases efficiency in manufacturing processes. For example, where parts may be large or cumbersome to handle, it can sometimes be easier to take the process to the part than try to move what might be a large and heavy object. This also saves cycle time by eliminating the need to move the part between different workstations.”

This concept of intelligent, multi-function end of arm tooling modules mounted to robots is growing across a number of diverse sectors including automotive, aerospace, medical device, white goods and more recently into areas related to household products and modular building construction. The operations which they perform are equally diverse, ranging from simple product handling, to glueing, sealing, drilling, dispensing and assembly. Where large parts are being manufactured, it is often the case that the robots being used will also be large to provide the required working envelope. Robots such as this will usually have a reasonably high payload, so they are capable of carrying and manipulating sophisticated end of arm tooling systems.

Ian Sinclair concludes: ’Of course, we continue to see growth across our standard product range, which itself includes a number of innovative and digital concepts, but there is no doubt that automation system integrators and machine builders are seeking to incorporate more technology into the end of arm tooling elements of a project wherever possible. Our expertise in this area means that we also continue to see growth in the number of sophisticated end of arm tooling systems that we design and build”