3D Printing End of Arm Tooling
As the EOAT market sector expands and innovates, what new technologies are shaping things to come? One technology that is already having a significant impact on cost, productivity and ROI is 3D printing end of arm tooling.
From pick-and-place operations, sorting, transporting, palletising, inspecting and machining to automotive production and specialised medical operations, robots play a vital role in industry and across all market sectors, performing a multitude of manufacturing tasks with endurance, speed and precision.
End-of-arm tooling (EOAT) is a key part of robotic technology. It is the equipment that interacts with parts and components, typically at the end of a robotic arm and may be used to manipulate pieces in a production line, or handle tools and equipment.
A robot’s end of arm tool (EOAT), also known as an end-effector, is designed based on the task it will perform, such as welding or gripping and is specific to the part or tool that the robot manipulates.
Although standard, off-the-shelf EOATs are available, robot integrators and end-users often require bespoke solutions to engage uniquely shaped objects, optimise operations and improve productivity.
Because of the low-volume nature of custom end of arm tooling, many EOATs are machined from various metals. They are combined with stock components such as vacuum cups, actuators, framing components and quick changers.
The time, cost and effort to machine custom EOATs can be prohibitive.
Traditional EOAT methods are cost effective when robots perform the same repetitive processes with the same EOAT device but the challenge for manufacturers is how to make multiple, customisable EOAT devices in a short timeframe.
There is growing demand for product variety and customisation, and manufacturers need to adapt and innovate robotic systems in response.
3D Printing End of Arm Tooling
3D printing end of arm tooling provides an alternative method for producing EOATs that can provide dramatic time and cost savings and enhanced production performance levels.
3D Printing end of arm tooling provides the following tooling advantages;
The material is up to 80% lighter than aluminum or other metal counterparts, which enables smaller robots to demold a larger number of parts.
Gripper mechanisms, hinges, mounts for sensors, air channels and other functions can be incorporated directly into the components during production.
3D printing gives manufacturers the ability to create complex and intricate designs, including angles and bellows.
What is FDM 3D Printing End of Arm Tooling?
FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) is the most industry prevalent and successful method for 3D printing end of arm tooling.
FDM is an additive manufacturing process that creates plastic parts in layers using data from 3D computer-aided design (CAD) files. With FDM, EOATs can be customised for a specific application while often accelerating deployment and implementation on the production floor.
FDM technology and the materials employed in the process create EOATs that result in a number of performance advantages for robots. FDM EOATs are lighter than those made with aluminium or other metals, which means that robots can move more quickly or carry larger payloads.
Weight reduction also helps to improve motor efficiency and reduces component wear, extending the time between preventive maintenance (PM) cycles. FDM technology can easily make hollow internal structures and the thermoplastic materials are lightweight, yet durable. When combined, weight reductions of ninety percent or more are feasible.
Plastics have two additional advantages: they won’t scratch the products they grip, and they dampen impact forces so that a tool crash is less likely to damage the robot. An FDM EOAT can also have components like magnets and sensors embedded during the FDM build process. Fully encased, the components are protected and won’t mar the parts that come in contact with the EOAT.
FDM EOATs can be as simple or complex as needed, which gives designers the freedom to create tooling solely for its specific function. For example, EOATs can have integrated vacuum channels, assemblies consolidated to a single part, or organic shapes that conform to the object being manipulated by the robot.
This design flexibility provides a unique opportunity to optimise robot performance and with FDM technology, design complexity doesn’t impact cost.
FDM EOAT ( 3D printing end of arm tooling ) manufacturing is responsive, efficient and straightforward, turning EOAT design projects into simple tasks. If a design requires a change, FDM can produce a new tool in as little as one day.
Additionally, new or revised designs and replacement EOATs can be delivered and mounted on the robot quickly, regardless of complexity. During robot testing and validation, a quick response avoids delays in starting up a production line.
Once FDM EOATs are operating in production, rapid revisions keep the line running at peak performance.
What does the future hold for EOAT innovation?
There is continuous pressure on industry in general to lower operational costs, increase productivity and incorporate quality control. The momentum permeates the entire value chain, leading all the way up to robot manufacturers.
The adoption of lightweight and efficient EOAT systems continues to grow among manufacturers and end-users alike, and this has yielded a better return on investment (ROI) for the automation equipment, along with greater flexibility and improved performance of robotic systems.
The evolving trends in the EOAT landscape are driving the efforts of robot designers and manufacturers to meet the efficiency and productivity requirements of their customers, who are in constant search for increasingly connected solutions to remain at the forefront of this highly competitive landscape.
Apart from FDM what are the other key trends influencing the robotic end of arm tools market?
Emergence of Collaborative Robots
The integration of advanced tools (such as quick changers, grippers, and sensors) into robots have improved the robot’s performance when handling repetitive tasks. This advance has enabled collaborative applications, allowing synchronised operations and consequently leveraging the capabilities of both workers and robots.
The user-friendly functionalities, safety features, and intuitive programming of the robotic EOAT have been driving demand across industrial sectors in recent years. EOAT manufacturers continue to broaden the market potential of collaborative robots (cobots), making them more independent, more reactive and smarter.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, cobots that are designed to facilitate workers in industrial applications, currently account for 3% of robot sales globally. However, by 2025, the share is likely to rise to 34%. Sensing the opportunities, companies are launching new end of arm tools especially for cobots.
Augmented Reality in Orientation Planning
Augmented Reality (AR) technology has emerged as a novel and effective method to interact with and control robots, while planning the path and orientation of the robotic EOAT.
The AR-based approach also helps users to create control points and define orientation of EOATs linked with each control point. The AR technology significantly enables robotic EOAT to accomplish pick and place tasks through a collision-free patch or route.
The recent convergence between augmented reality and robotics has led manufacturers to employ programing in various collaborative robots. Augmented reality also helps the user to digitally plan precision movements of robotic EOATs and allows for exact positioning of the component or object.
Additionally, having the ability to preview the path of the robotic end of arm tools also allows the controller to plan for interference and collisions.
End Effector Developments
Flexibility continues to be a key differentiator in the robotic EOAT equipment landscape and manufacturers are focusing on developing different end effectors for similar applications, enabling speedy changeovers.
Leading vendors in the robotic EOAT industry have made great strides towards enhancing the intelligence and agility of robots, with a recent breakthrough being the readjustment of grips.
Other recent innovations include automatic tool changers, built-in adjustability, and dexterous end effectors.
Advanced grippers possess the capability of handling multiple objects of varying sizes. For example, vacuum gripping systems and light-weight tooling systems have been designed to handle different materials such as metal sheet, wood, plastic, cardboard, and glass.
Hybrid tooling, which combines multiple gripper technologies in a single EOAT is also gaining popularity with users looking for universal grippers.
The Rise of Connected Robotic EOAT
Challenges faced by manufacturers, including high maintenance costs, real-time monitoring, and service readiness, have resulted in the development of a new generation of robotic EOAT which are integrated with connected technologies.
Following Industry 4.0, which facilitates flawless communication and superior data optimisation and collection, sustainability continues to drive developments in the robotic EOAT industry.
The integration of machine learning, connected through the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and fed by voluminous data sets, has considerably enhanced the manipulation of robotic EOAT.
New software platforms are being introduced for delivering critical insights to manufacturers in real time, complementing the convergence of robotic EOAT and IoT.
Robotic end of arm tool manufacturers are leveraging innovative technologies to introduce advanced products, and aid various industries in a range of specific production activities.
Meanwhile, a rapidly growing demand for modular robotic end of arm tools is resulting in the use of new manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing.
As developments in industrial robot technology continue, robotic EOAT of the future are predicted to far exceed the capabilities of current robotic technology.
This is highly likely to widen the scope of robotic automation to cover all aspects of industry, with the additional impetus of domestic demand included, ushering in the new age of automation.