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Here Come the Super Heavyweights!

POSTED 08/23/2001  | By: David R. Brousell, Managing Automation Magazine

Reprinted from Managing Automation July/2001 © 2001 Thomas Publishing Company

They may not be ripping off their T-shirts as they enter the ring, but a new class of superheavyweight robots is making its way into the competitive arena with earth-shaking force. One of these muscular creatures was spotted last month near Chicago, where, to the delight of bystanders, it tossed around a huge V8 engine as if it were merely a cardboard toy. Hulk Hogan, take notice.

These crowd-pleasing machines, which are capable of lifting 500 kg, or about 1,100 pounds, can do things besides toss around V8 engines. Their promoters say they can score big points in heavy material handling applications such as moving whole pallet loads of bricks or boxes and even replacing conveyor systems moving such objects. The big fellas, which are raising the weight-lifting threshold from a previous maximum of about 400 kg, certainly have big appetites.

ABB is one company that is convinced there's enough market demand to satisfy that hunger. At the International Robots & Vision Show last month in Rosemont, Illinois, ABB showed for the first time in the U.S. its new IRB 7600 'Power Robot.' This superheavyweight is a jointed arm robot that is capable of operating at that 1,100 pound weight level, even though at the show the 8.1-liter General Motors V8 engine it was playing with weighed in at only 745 pounds (plus 100 pounds for the mounting plate, but who's counting?).

Ann Smith, director of marketing communications for ABB, says the IRB 7600 will ship in both 400 kg and 500 kg versions in the fourth quarter, and she's confident that the superheavyweight will find a market. 'We are seeing the potential for it growing,' she says. Right now, two companies in the automotive industry have signed up for the Power Robots, she notes, but others are sure to follow.

They better, if ABB wants to claim bragging rights to having the most powerful robots in the world. Already, a war of words is starting over just who is firstist with the mostest. Kuka Robotics Corp., a German-based firm with offices in Michigan, and ABB first squared off over their respective superheavyweights in April at Hannover Fair in Germany.

Kuka says its new KR 500/1 robot, which it talked about at the Rosemont show but did not have on the floor, already has something over its ABB competitor. 'ABB's reach is 500 mm shorter than ours,' claims Bernard F. Sagan, Jr., a Kuka account executive. More important, says Sagan, is that Kuka has lined up about 30 customers for its superheavyweight, including GM in the U.S., which will take on two of the KR 500s.

But both Kuka and ABB better watch their flanks. Nachi Robotic Systems Inc. is about to enter the ring. Michael J. Bomya, executive vice president of engineering and manufacturing, says Nachi will trot out both 400 kg and 500 kg units beginning this summer. He, too, seems convinced that the superheavyweights will find a market that will match their size.

But others aren't so sure. Rick Schneider, president and CEO of Fanuc Robotics North America Inc., says his emphasis is on more intelligent robots that have capabilities to do such things as assemble a transmission. He has no plans for a superheavyweight. Neither does Motoman president Craig S. Jennings. He says the real opportunity for Motoman and the rest of the robotics industry, stung this year by the downturn, is to find new, non-traditional applications for highly flexible robotic systems. At the Rosemont show, Motoman spotlighted its AutoScript IIIA drug prescription system as just such an example.

Superheavyweight robots may end up being like supercomputers in the IT world: fine for an important, but small, niche of applications. Even if they end up with such a role, they'll still be fascinating to watch as they toss around those V8 engines and maybe even whole cars some day. The bottom line is, the big creatures are fun. Long live the superheavyweights! Are you ready for the superheavyweights? Write to me at [email protected]. MA