An engineering team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has built a hybrid robotic system that can grasp a wide variety of items, from small and delicate to large and bulky to gradually minimize human labor.
The system is inspired by the natural dexterity of the human hand. It is believed that this technology will impact several industries, such as food assembly, vertical farming, fast-moving consumer goods packaging, which will gradually automate more of their operations.
Under the leadership of Associate Professor Raye Yeow from the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering and the NUS Advanced Robotics Center, the hybrid robotic grippers use 3D-printed fingers with reconfigurable gripper bases. Several NUS researchers, including Low Jin Huat, Khin Phone May, Chen Chao-Yu and undergraduate student Han Qian Qian, started a company, RoPlus (RO+), to commercialize the robot innovation.
An object’s shape, texture, weight and size affect how we choose to grip them. This is one of the main reasons why many industries still heavily rely on human labor to package and handle delicate items.
Raye Yeow, Associate Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Advanced Robotics Center, National University of Singapore
Yeow continues, "Our hybrid robotic gripper technology revolutionizes traditional pick-and-place tasks by offering advanced capabilities that allow robots to safely interact with delicate items of various shapes, sizes and stiffness, just like the human hand."
Bio-Inspired Gripping Techniques
Humans are naturally adept at gripping objects, but robots find it less intuitive. For robots to grip like humans, they need computer vision and deep learning to identify the type and orientation of objects in front of them. In this way, the gripper will automatically select and place objects in the most optimal possible position to minimize the need for intensive human interaction.
Researchers at NUS aimed to develop robots that could grip things as dexterously as human hands through hybrid robotic grippers. There are three or four flexible fingers on this gripper, which can be reshaped on demand. A novel locking mechanism allows the fingers to be adjusted for stiffness. NUS researchers developed three types of hybrid robotic grippers that work in different ways.
Firstly, there is GourmetGrip, which is ideal for handling delicate bite-sized snacks, or food easily damaged like tofu, and packing them into take-out boxes. The soft-handed mode is adjustable so that it can accommodate different grip poses as well as various space constraints.
GourmetGrip can perform picking and placing of food items at the same speed as a human, and it can do so at a consistent pace all day long when mounted on a robotic arm. As compared to other commercially available grippers, the GourmetGrip system achieves a 23% improvement in gripping efficiency.
This is because it can hold items faster and more precisely. GourmetGrip’s technology can pick up more than 50 different food items, such as pudding, sliced cake, vegetables, and fruits.
The UnisoGrip, or Universal Soft Gripper, gripper is the team’s more universally applicable approach. It is equipped to withstand packaged goods on the assembly line while they are nearing the end of being packed into boxes for the shipping process. It features soft rotatable gripper fingers for delicate grabbing and a vacuum suction cup to manage more awkwardly positioned objects like the corner of a trash bin.
UnisoGrip is substantially larger than GourmetGrip, which has a grip range equivalent to that of a human hand, and can handle things up to 30 cm broad and three kilograms in weight, making it more adaptable in handling a wide range of consumer goods.
It also has a gripping effectiveness of 20% higher than other commercially produced grippers. UnisoGrip can currently pick up over 30 different consumer goods, including bottled drinks, coffee powder packs, refillable detergent packs, and much more.
The third type of gripper, based on the GourmetGrip/UnisoGrip platforms, is entirely adaptable to meet unique client needs and space limits. This method provides a wide range of grasping choices for objects of various shapes, sizes, and packing materials. People Bee Hoon Factory, a Singapore-based rice vermicelli maker, has implemented the NUS team’s configurable technology to improve the packing of rice vermicelli packets into carton boxes.
Most of our existing staff are mature workers, so we sought to tap on new technology that can ease the workload of our existing staff, while simultaneously boosting their productivity.
Mr Desmond Goh, Director, People Bee Hoon Factory
"We selected this technology because it is able to meet our purpose, and provides flexibility for different deployments that we require," explains Goh.
Taking NUS’s Invention to Market
The robotic gripper systems can be bundled with a robotic arm or purchased separately from the NUS team’s start-up company RO+, which offers commercial partners various options for launching them. The grippers can be easily mounted onto commercial robot arms for companies that already have their own.
The gripper, robotic arm, computer vision module, and conveyor system are all part of RO+’s 4-in-1 solution. The team is also working on strengthening the grippers’ intelligence using machine learning. The system may be educated via an online library to learn and constantly optimize the gripping of new items.
RO+ is funded by the NUS Graduate Research Innovation Program (GRIP), which invests in firms established by NUS faculty and researchers. The National Robotics Program and the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research both contributed to the gripper systems research.
Video Credit: National University of Singapore.