Sep 26, 2016 | By Alec

Who says that desktop 3D printers are unsuited for professional environments? Especially in the world of robotics, conventional FDM 3D printers are proving their worth as prototyping tools – even at major players such as Swiss automation technology group ABB. That company has been working on the revolutionary electronics assembly platform YuMi, the world’s first collaborative dual-arm industrial robot, for some time. And as they just revealed, their crucial gripping system is being prototyped using nothing more than a Ultimaker 2 Extended+ 3D printer.

ABB Robotics is one of the world’s leading players in the field of automation technologies. They are specialized in providing huge partners in the automotive, electronics and manufacturing industries with assembly line robotics, and are particularly focused on innovation and the minimization of environmental impact. As such, they have already come into contact with 3D printing in multiple ways. Just last week, Swiss construction giant LarfargeHolcim unveiled several 3D printed concrete structures that were realized with help from ABB.

But the YuMi (standing for You and Me) is something different entirely. It is being developed to automate the rapidly growing consumer electronics industry – which largely relies on underpaid assembly by hand. Especially Apple is notorious for the working conditions in their factories. Robotics could provide an affordable, labor-friendly solution, but will require very exact and delicate gripping systems to work with parts on such a small scale. The YuMi (which takes up as much space as a human worker) is intended to be exactly that, and first showcased its gripping mechanism at the EXPO MILANO in 2015.

But as co-developer Guillaume Pradels revealed, this gripping system is a huge challenge. The Yumi has to be capable of gripping, picking and placing parts of a very wide variety of shapes, sizes and structures – even delicate food items need to be picked up. That requires extreme flexibility in gripping finger choice, and they have therefore been developing a very wide range of gripping prototypes.

This is where 3D printing comes in. Traditional gripping systems are typically made from aluminum and it can take about 5 weeks to develop a single iteration. 3D printing, in contrast, takes about an hour. While at first the researchers were hesitant to switch to plastic, an example 3D printed at a fair quickly convinced everyone. It was thus a logical match, and the ABB team started developing their own CAD designs and exporting them to various external services. We’ve previously seen what Materialise added to the YuMi’s very delicate gripping ability.

But those services are, as many of you will have found out, quite expensive and relatively time-consuming. As Pradels revealed, they therefore started looking for alternatives and ended up with an in-house Ultimaker 2 Extended+ 3D printer – which proved to be a perfect solution. Already, the benefits are apparent. “As new designs can now be printed from a desktop without having to pass all the stages of ordering and delivery, we save a lot of time and money. We can do a lot more tests that we wouldn’t be able to do without the 3D printing solution,” he said on the Ultimaker website.

What’s more, the quality of the prints isn’t at all holding back development, showing exactly what desktop 3D printers can bring to the R&D table. Even other ABB departments are looking into in-house 3D printing options after the successes of the YuMi project. One thing seems clear: regular desktop FDM 3D printers definitely have a role to play in professional design environments.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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