Reposted from Automation & Control, Senior Editor Rob Spiegel February 3, 2014

ABB Robotics has worked with Ford Motor Company to develop robots with real-time tactile feedback for delicate assembly and machining. The robots use ABB’s Integrated Force Control to manage process variations with the sensitivity of the human hand. The touch capabilities of Integrated Force Control were designed to adjust the path and speed of the robot based on sensor input. The robot can also mimic motions of a human arm to find the correct position to assemble a part.

ABB has also introduced Integrated Vision, a smart-camera system designed to make vision-guided robotics easy to deploy. Integrated Vision was created to help manufacturers track products, troubleshoot challenging lines and processes, and expand the use of robotic automation.

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ABB’s Integration Force Control is a consolidation of software features that have been available in ABB machining and assembly tools. ABB force control technology was designed to help robots handle process variations with real-time external inputs, much as a human does when handling a delicate item with precise dimensions.

Robots deployed with Integrated Force Control react to their surroundings and deviate from their programmed path or speed based on feedback from the force sensor. This enhances conventional robotic movements that are typically controlled by predefined paths and speeds. The force control technology makes it possible to automate complex tasks that previously required skilled personnel and advanced fixed automation.

Integrated Force Control was 10 years in the making. ABB developed the tactile feedback capability to solve Ford’s need to take the assembly of fork converters from manual assembly to automated assembly. “It’s a difficult thing to assemble with all the gear meshes. Ford came to us and asked if it was possible to have a robot feel its way through the gear meshes,” Nick Hunt, manager of technology and support at ABB Robotics North America, told Design News. “From there it was a joint effort. Ford was giving us direction on how they would like to see it, and we figured out how to give the robot tactile feedback.”

A force-controlled robot can be programmed to mimic the movements of a human arm, applying search patterns to find the correct position to assemble a given part. This feature significantly reduces the risk of assembly failures which can result in production problems or damaged parts.

While Integrated Force Control was developed to solve a problem at Ford, ABB quickly realized it would be more useful if deployed in a real-time setting. “The initial force control began with Ford powertrains. It involved developing a high robot RAPID code. The routines that were written were written at the high level. We didn’t yet have those in the real-time operation system,” Hunt told us. “As we saw the usefulness of this and began to have some success with it, we decided to offer it to our users in the command center.”

Once ABB created the real-time functionality, the team added existing ABB force tools to reduce the user’s need to add original programming. “We wrapped it in feedback tools and made it easy for a user to actually use the feature without having to write a lot of code,” said Hunt.

Integrated Force Control will likely migrate to a wide range of applications. “This technology will help any time you need to feel your way through something without breaking your tooling,” said Hunt. “We use it on bunting, grinding, force milling, testing. We also get a lot of requests for testing the technology to see how often you can apply force to something -– like closing a door or placing an object on something. This technology helps you measure those forces.”

Manufacturing Robot Can Touch & See