We have nearly reached the half way point between SLAS 2017 and SLAS 2018. What better time to close out a review of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening 2017 show with a look at the trends that we expect to continue impacting the market in the coming year.
In our show recap, which started with our post here, we used an awards show inspired format to present our choices for the supporting and leading roles in motion control technology at SLAS. We awarded Closed Loop Stepper technology with the best supporting role and Direct Drive Servo technology with the best leading role.
In this installment we will award the supporting role for Industry Trends, taking a deeper look at how this trend is driving changes and how we anticipate it will continue to impact the market in the coming year.
Best Supporting Role for Industry Trends
The award goes to Collaborative Robotics. The use of robotics as a component of laboratory automation is not a new trend and collaborative robots are a natural evolution of the "plate" handling robots that have been in place for years.
Collaborative robots are designed to be safe to interact with humans in a shared workspace, thus allowing for the elimination of guards and interlocks that separated the laboratory personnel from the robots. Collaborative robots are being used in the laboratory to move samples from one instrument to the next, thus freeing up valuable laboratory personnel for more meaningful tasks.
The Collaborative Robot or CoBot is designed to:
- Reduce the implementation cost by providing safety without guarding
- Improve flexibility and productivity by allowing workers to interact with the automation
- Speed process development by allowing easy programming and teaching
There are 4 major methods that are generally employed to make a robot collaborative:
- Work space monitoring (Stop control) - The robot stops when a person enters the work area.
- Work space monitoring (Speed control) - The robot slows down to a safe speed that is determined by where the operator is within the work area.
- Power and Force monitoring - The robot is monitoring and limiting force either mechanically or through software.
- Impact Avoidance - The robot is deploying more localized sensors to check for impending impacts with an unexpected object and taking action to avoid.
The most common approach that is being used today in both the laboratory and factor is the Power and Force monitoring approach. In factory settings, this approach can be very limiting because both the reduced load and reduced speed have a negative impact on the productivity.
In the laboratory setting, loads are often low (microtiter trays) and speeds slow because of liquids are being moved. The biggest negative for the Power and Force monitoring method is that when there is a collision, although safe for the laboratory technician, it can be catastrophic for the sample due to spillage.
Trends relating to Collaborative robots in the laboratory are going to be focused around the technology to continue to enhance their value in safety, flexibility, and ease of deployment.
The first trend that we see pushing forward is move towards making the robotic joints (both rotary and linear) direct drive as opposed to geared. The typical benefit of direct driven joints compared to geared joints are reduced parts count, reduced noise and wear (friction), and greater precision. The negative of direct drive joints is the loss of mechanical advantage that a gear train provides.
In the Cobot application that is using Power and Force monitoring, the mechanical advantage provides another negative attribute, in that it "hides" the signal being monitored, thus slowing the reaction to an impact. Whether the Cobot is using an elastic joint or electronic force monitoring, placing the mechanical drive train between the sensor and the human results in a less sensitive safety mode. The inherent stiffness of a direct drive joint, provides immediate, undampened safety information back to the control, providing for faster response to collision.
The second trend that we see moving forward is the use of more advanced sensing devices to allow for a combination of work space monitoring via speed control and impact avoidance. Ultimately, there is no such thing as an acceptable collision. Keeping the laboratory technician safe and free of injury is critical, but damage to a sample is ultimately unacceptable.
Through a combination of Lidar type sensors for mapping and tracking objects within the workspace and on board collision detection sensors, both the safety and security of the technician and sample can be guaranteed. This approach also comes with improved autonomy that allows for variation in the workspace, which the Cobot can compensate for and remain productive.
The third and final trend that we see driving forward is the mobility and autonomy of robots in the laboratory. What we have seen displayed to date at SLAS are the more standard fixed based collaborative robots. In future, we are expecting to see mobile robots that can move between processing areas and storage areas autonomously. This will provide the ability to not only transfer samples between instruments, but to also keep the instruments maintained with reagents and other supplies.
Today, the main application for mobile autonomous robots is as delivery devices in both factory and non-factory settings such as hospitals. As these autonomous delivery carts become more intelligent and are fitted with collaborative arms we expect to see further automation of the mundane tasks that exist in today's laboratory settings.
In our next and final installment we will discuss the best leading role for industry trends from SLAS 2017.
Read part 1 of the SLAS 2017 Recap on Motion Control Products
Article contributed by Brian Handerhan, Business Development Manager, Parker Hannifin, Electromechanical & Drives