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Blog Category: Robotics

NIST Workshop Gets a 'Grip' on Robotics Challenge

Image of a seven degree-of-freedom highly dexterous robot and a seven degree-of-freedom, three fingered robotic hand.

Even though modern industrial robots are becoming nimbler and more capable, they still need to get a good grip on things—the equivalent of hands that are as agile and dexterous as the human variety.

How to tackle the thorny challenge, known in robotics speak as dexterous manipulation, was the aim of a recent workshop hosted by Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The workshop featured speakers from manufacturing companies (end users), along with developers of robot arms and of advanced robot "hands." Proceedings of the workshop, which NIST is using as it crafts a technology roadmap to guide measurement science research in the field, are summarized in a new report.

Factors driving the quest for human-like robot arms and grippers are quality control, cost, throughput and worker safety. According to one manufacturer at the workshop, two-thirds of his company's worker compensation cases are ergonomic disorders, mostly due to repetitive strain, over-extension and over-exertion.

Robotic arms are now starting to come in pairs, mounted to either a fixed or rotary torso with each arm having seven joints instead of the conventional six. This option boosts the dexterity of a robot and allows it to move its elbow around obstacles while maintaining precise placement at its working point.  Read more

NIST Working to Develop Adaptable Robots That Can Assist—and Even Empower—Human Production Workers

NIST’s new Autonomous Assembly Testbed includes an automated guided vehicle (left), conveyers, mannequins and an underslung robot arm (right).

Guest blog by Albert J. Wavering, the Chief of the Intelligent Systems Division of the Engineering Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Robots have explored Mars, descended into volcanoes, and roamed the ocean depths.  Today, they also perform humdrum chores, such as vacuuming and waxing floors.  And in between the ordinary and the extraordinary, robots are carrying out a growing array of tasks, from painting and spot-welding in factories to delivering food trays in hospitals.

But, when it comes to these automated machines, you haven’t seen anything yet, especially in the manufacturing world, where robots were first put to use 50 years ago in a General Motors factory.  In fact, the first factory robot became something of celebrity, earning an appearance, along with one of its inventors, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Even today, however, manufacturing robots are akin to electromechanical hulks that blindly perform relatively simple, repetitive jobs and—Tonight Show demo notwithstanding—must be safely separated from human workers by fences and gates.

In laboratories around the world, the race is on to build a new generation of robots that are smarter, more flexible, and far more versatile than the current one.  A successful leap to more adept and adaptable robots could set the stage for a revolution in U.S. manufacturing that reaches from the largest factories to the smallest job shops.

Automation technology has found a place performing repetitive and, often, dirty and dangerous factory tasks. It also has helped U.S. manufacturers to achieve productivity increases that are the envy of the world.

But the best could be yet to come.  The next wave of robots could be the springboard to new U.S. companies and new domestic manufacturing jobs.