When a robot needs to grab a soft item or items of irregular size and shape, traditional rigid robot grippers are often overkill or don’t work well. They have difficulty grasping delicate or odd-shaped items without crushing or dropping them. With the advent of e-commerce, smart manufacturing, flexible production lines, food & beverage automation, and collaborative robots (cobots), the need for new types of grippers is growing dramatically.
(Source: Soft Robotics)
Many of these new use cases require grippers that can grasp soft materials, delicate objects, food, and items in plastic packages, as well as rigid objects that vary in contour, size, or orientation. This has led to the development of an innovative generation of pneumatic grippers with soft fingers. Soft grippers now have new applications that can adapt to multiple products without retraining and control software that is easy to use.
The leading company in this space is Soft Robotics (SR), which designs and builds robotic gripping systems and automation solutions. SR’s pneumatic grippers feature soft jaws that adapt to the shape of an object. The SR mGrip technology features modular grippers that can be reconfigured to have different arrangements, including dual fingers, circular grippers, and parallel grippers.
SR’s SuperPick solution is a combination of a robot arm, mGrip gripper, vision system, AI engine, and control system that work together to provide robot fulfillment solutions for bin picking, sorting, and goods. The company says that SuperPick can be set up in one day and is robot agnostic, meaning it can work with many robots. SuperPicks are designed to be easily added to any robot or cobot on the market, including those from Universal Robots, Yaskawa, and FANUC.
SR software lets the operator precisely calibrate the grip strength and the gripper opening size, with four preset slots for various types of products. The company targets three major industries: food & beverage, advanced manufacturing, and e-commerce & retail. Its SuperPick solution solves previously difficult automation challenges and opens new opportunities for robot and cobot makers.
SR recently announced a standalone pneumatic source for its grippers that runs on the robot arm’s power. This eliminates the need for an external air compressor and the accompanying hose tethered to it. It is now easier for companies to add mGrip without major changes or extra equipment.
SR has been working with FANUC since 2017 to develop modular solutions based on the SR mGrip system and FANUC robots and cobots. In December 2019, SR announced a partnership with FANUC designed to “accelerate adoption of critical automation needs across industries.”
Systems integrators can now buy SR grippers directly from FANUC. FANUC integrators and owners can install them as a plug-and-play add-on. SR designed the FANUC solution to make sure mGrip is easily deployable and programmable.
(Source: Soft Robotics)
The company developed a control system specifically for FANUC robots that can be installed on any FANUC robot. One of the world’s first modular soft robotic gripper systems, mGrip can be paired with a new controller called the Mini-P. This controller is designed specifically for easy integration with FANUC robots via the FANUC teach pendant, which enables the system to get up and running quickly.
Healthy Growth: Other Partnerships and Series B Funding
The FANUC partnership is non-exclusive, and SR is actively working with other major players to develop modular plug-and-play mGrip systems. In addition to FANUC, SR currently offers a plug-and-play version of its mGrip for Universal Robots and Yaskawa.
In another sign of healthy growth, SR closed its Series B round of funding in January 2020. It raised $23 million, led by Calibrate Ventures and Material Impact. This round also included participation from Honeywell, Yamaha, Hyperplane, and FANUC. The Massachusetts-based company has raised $48 million to date, reports estimated annual revenue of more than $1 million, and employs more than 50 people.
What Does This Mean for the Future of Soft Robotic Grippers?
These partnerships and the healthy funding round for SR will definitely catch the attention of other investors and gripper companies. Expect to see more investment in this area to feed demand from food & beverage, advanced manufacturing, and e-commerce & retail for a new generation of grippers that can handle even the most delicate job with dexterity.