Zimmer Group takes part in EU research project SOFTMANBOT

Development of flexible handling technology for flexible components

Due to rising wages and salaries, parts of the production of the tire, footwear, toy and textile industries have already migrated to low-wage countries. An EU project launched last October is now trying to counteract this development. The aim is to achieve a higher degree of automation in production and to improve ergonomics at the workplace by means of innovative robot systems.

Many processes in connection with the use of flexible parts in various industrial sectors are still carried out manually, as many processes require sensitivity and are therefore difficult to automate. This ranges from tire production to the handling of doll heads and the sewing together of different fabrics. Technological progress means that robots could one day take on partial tasks in this area.

Against this background, the European Union has now launched the SOFTMANBOT research project as part of the "Horizon 2020" funding program. Under the working title "Advanced RoBOTic Technology for Handling SOFT Materials in MANufacturing Sectors" (short: SOFTMANBOT), the aim is to create an innovative and integral robot system for handling flexible and deformable materials (e.g. textiles, rubber etc.) in labour-intensive production processes. The future robot system (see Figure 1) will consist of three components: robot, gripper, and perception system (vision and sensor technology), which can handle soft components or workpieces with a high degree of precision and flexibility. The gripper system should be able to recognize the product and the human operator in real time.  A multi-sensor control and planning platform should provide AI-based task generalization. A flexible handling system which is equipped with tactile grippers, for example, will play a major role in the robot system of the future.  Using integrated sensors, it can measure the contact forces on soft workpieces, for example, and is thus able to react to their deformation. Safety, ergonomics, adaptability, acceptance and user-friendliness are further important aspects to be fulfilled.

The SOFTMANBOT research project consists of a total of eleven European project participants from four countries. In addition to renowned companies such as Michelin, Decathlon and the French university Sorbonne, the Zimmer Group from Rheinau is the only German partner and, as a specialist in end-of-arm tooling, develops the required gripping technology. Based on four very different innovative industrial demonstrators, the new technologies will now be developed and tested. With the results of these tests, a contribution to technological progress will be made which will help to give robots an even more important role in the European industry. The claim of SOFTMANBOT is the handling of various flexible components to support the worker during strenuous and difficult work. This means that the machine does not replace the human being, but complements his skills and takes away stressful and monotonous work. In this way the worker can carry out more valuable work in the future, such as troubleshooting or quality control.

The three components of the future robot system and the four industrially relevant application areas.