Cobot Tooling Company Grows Its Innovative Technologies

OnRobot has been formed through a series of mergers and acquisitions that will continue unabated for the next couple years at least as it builds its portfolio. Blue Workforce assets are its latest acquisition.

An innovative company that has been actively acquiring other innovative companies has taken on yet more capabilities. Denmark-based OnRobot, which specializes in end-of-arm tooling for collaborative robots (cobots), has secured several technologies and products from Blue Workforce, which recently filed for bankruptcy after an unsuccessful funding round.

OnRobot has taken over all the design rights for the products in Blue Workforce—which designed robots primarily for food processing and agricultural applications—as well as its machines, inventory and tools. OnRobot is also taking on 12 of Blue Workforce’s robot developers.

“We saw an obvious opportunity to expand our product portfolio with some unique technologies and competencies within soft gripping and vision technologies (i.e. solutions that can handle delicate items and foods without damaging them) as well as camera-based solutions for inspection on production lines,” said Enrico Krog Iversen, OnRobot’s CEO. “We expect very quickly to be able to create new OnRobot products with ingredients from the inventions we’ve bought.”

This acquisition fits firmly with OnRobot’s ambitious growth plans. In addition to growing its own internal R&D efforts, OnRobot is aggressively acquiring technology from other companies in the industry, Kristian Hulgard, OnRobot’s general manager, Americas, told me at the Automate show last week in Chicago. “We will acquire three to five new companies in the next two to three years,” he said.

OnRobot itself was formed less than a year ago by the merger of three companies—U.S.-based Perception Robotics, Hungary-based OptoForce, and Denmark-based On Robot. The company then acquired Purple Robotics a couple months later. With its main headquarters in Odense, Denmark, OnRobot opened a U.S. headquarters in Dallas in October.

It is intent on gaining all the technology it can to serve a quickly growing cobot market. Though cobots account for little more than 3 percent of industrial robot sales today, they’re expected to jump by a factor of 10 in the coming years, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), growing to 34 percent of the market by 2025.

How will cobot manufacturers reach that growing market? Hulgard asked during Automate. “They’ve got to find solutions that cut that integration time,” he said.

Instead of Plug and Play, OnRobot refers to its technology as Plug and Produce grippers—known for its ease of use and low integration time, Hulgard said. “You add it to the robot, plug in one cable, and start working.”

The company now has about 10 products available but expects to grow that number to 50 by 2020. Some of that growth will come, of course, through continued acquisitions. “There are a lot of cool technologies that are struggling with distribution,” Hulgard commented. “We could introduce them through our existing channels.”

The technology that OnRobot already has is garnering considerable recognition. Its Gecko Gripper was awarded a silver Edison Award earlier this month, directly on the heels of winning the Robotics Award at the Hannover Fair in Germany. As the name implies, the Gecko Gripper is modeled after the way that geckos climb. Released in January, it uses millions of micro-scaled fibrillar stalks that adhere to a surface with powerful van der Waals forces. The technology was initially developed through a research project at Stanford University and used by NASA to handle solar panels in space and also to secure tablets on the International Space Station (ISS).

“It doesn’t use electricity, magnetism or airflow. It’s a natural adhesive technology that simulates the fingers of a gecko,” Hulgard explained. This makes it well suited for flat, smooth objects—and tablet and TV panel manufacturers can skip the typical washing step required after robotic handling, he added.

OnRobot showed off the Gecko Gripper at Automate on the end of a Yaskawa HC10 robot. On a Kawasaki RS007N robot, OnRobot displayed its new VG10 vacuum gripper, which does not require a compressor or air supply and has four flexible arms that enable it to handle a variety of objects in different sizes. OnRobot’s first and best-selling product was shown on a Mitsubishi Electric cobot: a two-finger gripper that can control the force it applies whether it’s handling a bearing or an egg. At the end of a Kuka robot was a force torque sensor that provides precise control for surface finishing applications like polishing, sanding or deburring.

There were eight different manufacturers’ robots on display in OnRobot’s Automate booth, and that was by design—showing off the company’s ability to integrate easily with a number of different cobots and traditional robots. OnRobot’s Iversen was CEO of Universal Robots when it was sold to U.S.-based automated test equipment supplier Teradyne in 2015, and OnRobot continues to integrate closely with Universal Robots through the UR+ platform. But now OnRobot tools can be integrated with several other robots.

This is thanks in large part to the new Digital I/O Converter Kit that OnRobot launched last month to support seamless integration of its RG2, RG6, Gecko and VG10 grippers with a wider range of robotic arms. The kit facilitates out-of-box integration with Kuka, Fanuc, Yaskawa, Kawasaki, Doosan, Nachi and Techman robot arms.

Integrating grippers with robot arms is often one of the most difficult parts of developing new robotic applications because of mismatched I/O signals between the end-of-arm-tooling and the robot arm. The Digital I/O Converter Kit converts NPN to PNP signals, and vice versa, so that programmers don’t have to worry about the robots and grippers not understanding the signals received. The kit also includes an adapter plate to convert the OnRobot standard mounting flange to match the robot’s flange.

As it gathers more technologies into its folds, OnRobot aims to be a one-stop shop for cobot needs. “We want to work with everybody,” Hulgard said. “We can work with everybody.”

 

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