Overview of Robotic End-Effectors

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When automating a production process most of the attention is put on selecting the industrial robot. While selecting the right industrial robot arm is key for successful automation there is another component that may be just as important and that is the end-effector.

The end-effector is the device that allows the robotic manipulator to perform tasks and interact with workpieces. Without an end-effector a robot is not very useful. The industrial robotic arm may be programmed to follow an application path, but if it does not have a device to interact with workpieces, then it cannot automate the application. Robot end-effectors are integrated with the end of the robot wrist. They may be powered hydraulically, electrically, or pneumatically. Other terms used for end-effectors include EOAT (end of arm tooling) and manipulator.

End-Effector Types

End-effectors can be classified into three categories. These include grippers, process tooling, and sensors. Grippers are the most common type of end-effector as they are the most versatile and can be applied to a wide range of applications. Grippers act as the “hand” of a robot. Integrating the FANUC LR Mate 200ic with a gripper allows it to pick up and manipulate objects. Robotic grippers are used for material handling applications and feature several types. The most common grippers include finger style, bag, vacuum, and magnetic. The type of gripper selected depends upon the workpieces of an application. Automating a palletizing application with the Yaskawa MPL160 will typically call for a bag gripper. While the handling of smaller parts would be ideal for a finger style gripper.

Process tools are essentially power tools used by workers, only instead of humans handling them they are integrated to the robot wrist. These are more application specific. For instance, the FANUC Arcmate 100ic/6L would be integrated with a welding torch for robotic MIG applications. While the FANUC Paint Mate 200ia/5L would need a paint sprayer to automate a painting process. Other process tools include drills, cutters, 3D printing devices, sanders, and other machinery devices.

Sensor end-effectors are mainly used for quality control applications such as robotic inspection. These may include 2D cameras, 3D cameras, laser scanners, ultrasonic sensors, and infrared. These devices allow the ABB IRB 120 to thoroughly inspect objects for any defects to ensure high quality.

Tool Changers

Robotic tool changers are another device that can be integrated to the robot wrist, typically between the wrist and end-effector. They are not considered end-effectors themselves, but they allow articulated robots to automatically switch between EOATs. With a tool changer the FANUC M-20ia/20M can autonomously switch between a gripper and cutting tool. Tool changers allow a single six axis robot to automate a sequence of tasks with minimal interruptions to the production process.

End-Effector Selection

Selecting an end-effector will depend upon the type of application you are automating. For applications such as welding, painting, and inspection the selection process is pretty straightforward. However, for applications such as material handling or cutting it can be more complex with multiple types of tooling available. In these instances the workpiece itself should be considered. The weight, size, shape, and material will all determine the best end-effector to use. It is also important when selecting an end-effector to consider its weight as this goes towards the maximum payload capacity of the robot arm.

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