Humanoid robots “a thing of the past”

6 May 2000

in 2000

Robots that look and behave like humans are proving too complicated and expensive to use in industry, and are being replaced by devices called ‘modular manipulators’.

The manipulator is made up of modules, with each module performing one simple task, like putting a bolt in place or twisting it, or bringing two components together.  The modules are then linked together so they can perform a series of tasks, like assembling a mobile phone.

Matthew Devenish, a PhD student in Mechatronics at the Curtin University of Technology, says the idea of a highly skilful, all-purpose, human-like robot like R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars is set to become a romantic notion of the past.

“The more general-purpose a robot is the more complex it becomes. The extra complexity tends to increase costs whilst the performance for any one task decreases,” he said.

“We’re moving to a stage where we assemble manipulators like Lego blocks.

This allows engineers to custom-build their own modular robots, creating high performance machinery at a reasonable cost.

Each building block or module performs a simple function like linear, rotary or gripping motions. Modular connection points are built in, so a complete manipulator can be quickly and easily constructed.

“The big gains are in price and performance.  Each module, while relatively inexpensive, is precision engineered to deliver both high accuracy and high speed. This will give Australian manufacturers an edge in the fight to gain international markets,” Mr Devenish said.

A modular manipulator can be built to perform simple tasks like ‘pick-and-place’ product handling up to complex assembly of appliances like mobile phones.  If the task should change, the modules are not useless.

“Just like Lego, the modules can be pulled apart and re-used,” he said.

Modular automation is a relatively new technology and not yet widely adopted in industry.

Few engineers have the skills and design experience to design a manipulator without the costly and time consuming ‘trial-and-error’ approach. The sticking point for designers is not knowing how to correctly state the purpose of the manipulator in a formal way.

A computer-based ‘design assistant’ is being created by the Modular Automation Group at Curtin University of Technology to guide engineers through this tedious job of task specification.

“Unfortunately, writing a manipulator specification is a bit like reading a VCR manual – it’s difficult and time consuming. But with the aid of a computerised assistant, we envisage that entire factories will one day be designed around modular manipulators.”

The challenge is to make the assistant easy to use so designers are encouraged not to skip any steps in the design process.  It should also ‘think’ like a human designer, asking important questions about the task without being tedious or time consuming.

SMC Pneumatics Australia, who supply the modules, believe the specification tool is the missing link that will make high performance, cost effective automation more available within Australian industry.

Modular robots – the ultimate ‘do-it-yourself’ automation

Project Summary

Today’s robots have been endowed with human-like arms, hands and vision but still struggle to perform precision work at high speed. An ingenious new‘building block’ approach – rather like a set of Lego – allows engineers to custom-build their own modular robots, creating high performance machinery at a reasonable cost.

Project Description
For over thirty years, robotics engineers have been motivated by science fiction to mimic the human form by creating robots with dexterous arms and hands and adding senses like vision and touch. But the idea of a highly skilful, all-purpose, human-like robot is set to become a romantic notion of the past.The reason is, the more general-purpose a robot is the more complex it becomes. The extra complexity tends to increase costs whilst the performance for any one task decreases.Australian manufacturers, having discovered the poor economics of these robots, are demanding more practical automation solutions.Researchers at Curtin University’s department of mechanical engineering believe ‘building-block’ automation is the answer – an ingenious new technology that allows high performance, purpose-built automation to be created from the ground up. Even the name ‘robot’ is dropped in favour of the more practical ‘manipulator’.Like an advanced Lego set, each building block or ‘module’ performs a simple function like linear, rotary or gripping motions. Modular connection points are built in, so a complete manipulator can be quickly and easily constructed. Each module, while relatively inexpensive, is precision engineered to deliver both high accuracy and high speed.A modular manipulator can be built to perform simple tasks like ‘pick-and-place’ product handling up to complex assembly of appliances like mobile phones. If the task should change, the modules are not useless – in fact they can be pulled apart and used again elsewhere.But despite all the benefits of modular automation, it is a relatively new technology and not yet widely adopted in industry.The problem is, few engineers have the skills and design experience necessary to design a manipulator without the costly and time consuming ‘trial-and-error’ approach. The sticking point for designers is not knowing how to correctly state the purpose of the manipulator in a formal way.A computer-based “design assistant” is being created to guide engineers through this difficult and – let’s face it – boring job of task specification.The challenge is to make the assistant easy to use so designers are encouraged not to skip any steps in the design process. It should also ‘think’ like a human designer, asking important questions about the task without being tedious or time consuming.SMC Pneumatics Australia, who supply the modules, believe the specification tool is the missing link that will reduce the time and effort necessary to create high performance, cost effective automation.

Previous post:

Next post: