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How to Find the Right End-of-Arm Tooling (EOAT) for Your Robots and Cobots

POSTED 01/24/2024  | By: John Lewis, A3 Contributing Editor, Tech B2B Marketing

Figure 1: By automatically loading and unloading custom thermoformed dunnage trays that can consistently be accessed by a cobot’s EOAT, the Applied Cobotics Cobot Feeder helps deliver and stage parts for machine work. (Image courtesy of PBC Linear.)Adding robots or cobots into your manufacturing processes begins with big-picture decisions, such as model types and cell placements. Decisions about end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) are just as important and potentially need to be revisited as SKUs change or technology improves.

Some applications dictate clear EOAT decisions, like a robot arm holding auto body parts in place during welding operations. The arm almost certainly mounts gripper-style EOAT. A cobot arm used for pick-and-place operations, on the other hand, could mount either a vacuum-based tool or a gripper, depending on the size of the part and placement error tolerance. 

Common Uses for EOAT Technology

There are other common applications for EOAT besides heavy industrial assembly, pick-and-place, and palletizing/depalletizing. “Machine tending has to be one of the largest consumers of EOAT, with so many different types of parts to machine, the flexibility and customization of EOAT really shine in this industry,” says Beau Wileman, Applied Cobotics program manager at PBC Linear

The food and beverage industry helps drive EOAT development due to the lightweight and delicate composition of the manipulated objects. Vision systems drive another range of EOAT choices.

Figure 2: Originally intended to attach to a robotic arm, the DoAll light includes multiple ports for connecting auxiliary lights. (Image courtesy of Smart Vision Lights.)“Equipping a robot or a cobot with a multifunctional light and a camera can allow the system to perform a range of inspections, from standard presence/absence detection to photometric stereo implementations for tire inspection, without having to change the light to find the optimal illumination setup,” says Steve Kinney, director of training, compliance, and technical solutions for Smart Vision Lights.

Basic EOAT Considerations

“The most significant factors to contribute [to EOAT selection] are workpiece geometry, project budget, and volume of a given workpiece,” says Wileman.

“The most important factor when selecting an EOAT for a specific application is what needs to be picked in the application — specifically, the average size, the maximum size, the minimum size, the rigidity, and the durability of the product,” says Anthony Romeo, product marketing manager at Soft Robotics

Figure 3: A product's average size, maximum size, minimum size, rigidity, and durability are critical factors to consider when selecting EOAT. (Image courtesy of Soft Robotics.)“The end-of-arm tool needs to be able to grip or screw, depending on what type and the nature of the application. The tool needs to do it [right] 100 times out of 100,” says Kristian Hulgard, general manager of Americas at OnRobot.

Hulgard adds, “Then I think about the value of redeployment and easy integration. People want to be able to use their robots for multiple things, or at least have a future-proof end-of-arm tool that does not necessarily go on the shelf if they want to use the robot for something else.”

A traditional pneumatic gripper has a limited number of potential parts of different sizes, shapes, and materials compared to an electric servo-driven gripper featuring greater flexibility, says Hulgard. The pneumatic gripper has a much lower price point, but each new SKU may require an entirely new pneumatic gripper, whereas an electric servo-driven model might handle a wide range of SKU changes.

Current EOAT Technology Trends

“EOAT technology is trending toward speed and yield improvements. Providing a customer with an EOAT that is faster or more reliable goes a long way to helping their overall operation. Being able to open/close an EOAT a fraction of a second faster can lead to significant savings over the course of a shift,” says Romeo.

“In addition to the speed increase, EOAT designers are developing clever ways to increase yield by ensuring no product damage. Using soft grippers or providing more accurate pick coordinates are a few examples of increasing yield,” Romeo adds.

“I am seeing a large shift to electrical/collaborative grippers that feature a lot of smart software to easily interface with the robot/cobot,” says Wileman.

Hulgard believes plug-and-play software holds the only solution for manufacturers to survive the rising number of robot deployments without hiring a greater number of robot engineers to handle EOAT installations and changeovers.

“By choosing a pick-and-place software controller pre-vetted by manufacturers, whether it is your end-of-arm tool, your sensor, your camera, your conveyor, or whatever it might be, you dramatically cut your deployment time,” Hulgard adds.

“In the food industry, where labor costs are increasing, turnover is high, and more rigorous food safety standards are required, advanced automation technologies such as 3D vision, artificial intelligence, and soft grippers surpass existing EOAT solutions,” says Romeo. 

“Compared to traditional solutions, which are often too costly, complex to implement, and require custom development, the new generation of robot-based automation offers a significant competitive edge both technologically and economically,” Romeo adds.

Pressing Challenges for EOAT Development

“As robots get better at supplying utilities to the end of their arms, EOAT benefits by having a smaller and more compact form factor. The challenge in EOAT is limiting the size while keeping the strength rating of the robot for the workpiece,” Wileman says.

Hulgard believes that manufacturers already have the tooling options they need to handle any process. He says that cost-effectiveness and ease of use, not tool design, are the primary challenges for EOAT technology. “If we need to spend too many engineering hours on each project, we are not going to be able to meet this demand for manufacturing robot installations. But if we can make it so easy and integrable that the customer might even be able to do it himself, then we're in the right spot. That is the biggest challenge,” Hulgard says.

Figure 4: Printed circuit boards are mounted inside a VGC10 gripper with OnRobot’s robotic screwdriver attached to a UR5e cobot arm. (Image courtesy of OnRobot.)3D Printing Enables New EOAT Choices

“At PBC Linear, our product line of large-form 3D printers has allowed us to come up with some interesting EOAT geometries to accommodate complex contours in our parts,” says Wileman. “3D printing remains one of the best ways to create (or at least prototype) quick EOAT solutions for high-mix or high-volume shops.”

Duygu Gunay, product manager at HP 3D Printing, agrees, noting that “additive manufacturing has a number of key advantages over traditional manufacturing methods, which is leading more companies to embrace the technology. From rapid prototyping, allowing for a vastly reduced time-to-market for products, to 3D printing’s ability to drive efficiencies in the supply chain, for many companies additive manufacturing is an obvious choice when it comes to making custom EOAT.”

Sodecia, a full-service supplier of components for automotive power train, safety, and interior segments, plus other tools and equipment, uses robot arms extensively in its manufacturing operations, for instance to hold parts during welding applications. Sodecia collaborated with HP’s 3D printing team to design a new aluminum end-of-arm tool with reduced weight to enable faster cycle times.

The new tools are modular, adjustable, and adaptable for smaller robots owing to the decreased weight. They also draw less power, have a smaller footprint, and open the door for new applications, such as integrating spot welding cap-changing devices directly into the gripper.

Figure 5: Sodecia reduced EOAT weight, lead time, and shipping time using HP 3D Printing’s Multi Jet Fusion technology. (Image courtesy of Sodecia.)Hulgard thinks the current trend of 3D printing for EOAT optimization distracts from the goal that robot integrators need to set for themselves.

“It just tells me that they are focusing on specifications and stats of their EOAT. The reason why I am not going that route is I think it is more interesting to talk about ... what value the tool creates for the market and for the customer going forward,” says Hulgard.

“We can always fight about who can grip the hardest and have the highest payload or be the lightest weight. ... To me it is actually irrelevant. We have the technology to grip anything we want, to screw any screw. ... We have gotten so far. Now we need to make it more valuable for the customer. We need to make it easier to integrate,” Hulgard adds.

EAOT Advancements to Watch For

“I see EOAT getting smarter and taking on more and more safety and measurement capabilities —weight, size, vision (go/no go), area scanning, etc.,” says Wileman.

“Within five years ... everything will be one unit: the robot, the end-of-arm tool, the stand, the application, the sensors. Everything will be unified into one type of software where we can install monitoring, control, programming, everything, so you do not differentiate the actual robot from the EOAT. It is just going to be one solution,” says Hulgard.

“With the latest boom in AI, I see EOAT technology utilizing machine vision and AI data to make faster and more accurate picks. Rate and yield drive many technologies, and EOATs are no exception. More intelligently understanding what is being picked and the fastest way to pick it will help customers increase their bottom line,” says Romeo.