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A One-Armed Collaborative Trend

As the collaborative robot market continues to develop, one trend seems clear—these robots will have one arm for purposes of mobility and small space application.

Sawyer's wrist features an embedded Cognex camera.
Sawyer's wrist features an embedded Cognex camera.

The world of collaborative robot technology is a diverse one. From a variety of end-of-arm-tooling choices, degrees of motion, payload capacities, safety features, vision capabilities, and mounting options, you can find just about any type of collaborative robot you might be looking for despite the relative newness of the technology. But there is one thing that nearly all collaborative robots have in common—one arm.

Baxter remains the most prominent outlier to this one-armed collaborative robot trend, but the company behind Baxter—Rethink Robotics—now offers its own one-armed collaborative robot named Sawyer. Released for sale this past fall, I had my first opportunity to see Sawyer in action at Hannover Messe 2016.

In my meeting with Mike Fair of Rethink Robotics at Hannover Messe, he explained that many of the technologies underlying Baxter and Sawyer are similar. They are, however, designed for different tasks. Whereas Baxter is designed for taking items off a production line and packing them, Sawyer is designed to operate in smaller spaces and perform more precise tasks, such as printed circuit board handling and integrated circuit testing. Fair pointed out that Sawyer can also handle the packaging and loading/unloading tasks for which Baxter is well known.

Beyond the one-arm versus two-arm designs of Sawyer and Baxter, respectively, some of the key differences between the two robots are their weight—Baxter weighs 165 pounds, Sawyer weighs 42 pounds; reach—Baxter has a 1210 mm reach, Sawyer has a 1260mm reach; and payload—Baxter can handle 5 lbs per arm, Sawyer can handle 8.8 lbs. Fair noted that Saywer's light weight makes it far more mobile and, therefore, more easily adaptable to flexible manufacturing environments. Both robots feature Rethink Robotics' Intera operating software and Safety by Inherent Design, wherein the robots’ power and force are controlled by elastic actuators and embedded sensors.

Baxter and Sawyer also both feature embedded vision capabilities, but Sawyer features a Cognex camera in its wrist as well as in its head. Fair noted that the wrist camera on Sawyer can play an important role in applications using fiducial marks to aid in precise robot navigation. As for the Cognex camera in Sawyer’s head, Fair said that new capabilities for Sawyer using this camera would soon be forthcoming from Rethink Robotics.

The video below shows Rethink Robotics' Mike Fair at Hannover Messe programming Sawyer to perform a basic task.

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