Most robots and collaborative robots (cobots) have a fixed configuration and structure. This works well for the applications for which they were designed. But what if the owner wants to use the robot for a new application? It would be useful if the joints and shape of the robot could be reconfigured when needed. Modular robots provide the solution and the flexibility to meet the needs of smart factories, as well as client expectations of shorter turnaround and customization. This is the idea behind modular robots. Let’s look at a few examples.
Modbot describes its product (pictured below) as adaptable arms that use software-defined robotics powered by flexible modular hardware to solve thousands of different automation problems. (This could be a useful definition for modular robots.) Its system includes a programming interface and integration development software designed to make setup and integration easy and quick.
Like many of the new robot and cobot companies, Modbot includes an easy-to-use web-based programming interface. The robots are taught by moving the robot arm and joints into the positions they need to perform.
The advantage of modular hardware and software is the ability to set up the robot the way you need it. As requirements change or new use cases arise, the joints can be quickly rearranged and the software reprogrammed to match the new configuration that is required. Applications for Modbot’s products include inspection, dispensing, polishing, assembly, food preparation, drilling, pick & place, and torquing.
Another type of modularity comes in the form of modular robot work cells. Allied Technology is a machine builder and robotics integrator that creates flexible, modular robot cells. It uses cobots like the e-Series from Universal Robots to create robot cells that are designed to be easily implemented and redeployed.
(Source: Allied Technology)
The work cells are designed to require minimal modification to suit specific use cases, and the software allows users to simply reteach waypoints if the configuration changes. Allied’s goal is to provide cobot and automation solutions that are modular, scalable, flexible, and easily redeployed for future needs. This enables systems to be reused as products and production lines change in the future, which Allied refers to as “future-proofing your production.”
A third type of modularity comes in the form of modular parts that can be easily replaced by the owner. The Kinova Gen3 ultra lightweight robot arm has a modular design that allows for easy reconfiguration. In addition to the arm components, the actuators are also modular. If an actuator breaks or wears out, it can easily be replaced by non-technical personnel. This reduces downtime and eliminates the need for highly skilled maintenance staff.
The arm is powered by two sets of three identical, interchangeable, and easy-to-replace aluminum actuators linked together by a zero insertion force (ZIF) cable. Its segments are made entirely of carbon fiber to deliver optimal strength and durability with minimum weight. Kinova’s arm is mounted on a standard aluminum support structure that can be affixed to almost any surface, including mobile robots.
Modularity and the Future of Robotics
Customers are demanding greater variety and expect their products to arrive quickly. Such demand drives manufacturers to make their production more flexible to enable low volume, high mix production. At the same time, these smart factories need to rapidly adapt to production changes. The advantages of modular robots are thus even more compelling, and there is a strong incentive for companies to invest in them. This is likely to propel demand for modularity, which will lead more robot makers to design and bring modular robots to market. We expect to see an increasing number of makers selling modular arms, work cells, and components in the coming years, and this trend will become the standard, rather than the exception.
Tractica plans to cover this topic in our upcoming report, Collaborative Robots, and as part of our Robotics Advisory Service.