Epson robots bend over backwards to be flexible

August 29, 2017

Max The Magnificent-August 29, 2017

I'm constantly amazed by the things I don’t know. Well, by definition, I don’t know what I don’t know, so I suppose it's more accurate to say that I'm constantly surprised by the things I discover that reveal vast gaps in my knowledge.

Let's try a simple word association test. Earlier today, if you had said "Seiko," I would have said "Watches," and if you had followed up with "Epson," I would have replied "Printers." It's not my fault, I was a younger and more foolish man this morning -- I'm much better-informed now.

The Seiko Epson Corporation we know and love today is a Japanese electronics company and one of the world's largest manufacturers of computer printers and information and imaging-related equipment (in fact, "Epson" is an abbreviation for "Son of Electronic Printer").

The roots of Seiko Epson date back to a small timepiece company that started in 1942. Over the years, as the components in clocks and watches grew smaller and smaller, it became harder and harder to find enough master-class assemblers to keep up. In order to address this issue, the Epson part of the operation started to implement simple automation, which evolved over time into sophisticated robotic systems.

Eventually, the Seiko Epson Corporation was using machines from its Epson Robots division to build all its products. At some point along the way, the folks at Epson realized that other companies were in need of robot-based manufacturing solutions, so -- in addition to using them internally -- they started to make their robots available to a global audience.

When asked, most people associate the Epson name with products like projectors, printers, and scanners, but it turns out that they are also huge in robotics -- they've sold 55,000+ robots around the world and this number is rocketing skywards.

Epson offer a wide range of robots, commencing with their SCARA families with a starting cost of ~$8k. These are high-speed, high-precision 4-axis robots that work "flat-to-flat" on a horizontal plane.


An Epson SCARA robot (Source: Epson Robots)

For tasks that demand greater flexibility, Epson also offer families of 6-axis robots. The latest and greatest of these is the Flexion N-Series, with a starting cost of ~$21k. The folks at Epson are justifiably proud of the Flexion N-Series, which they describe as: "A revolutionary folding arm design that is changing the scope of automation."

So, how do Flexion N-Series robots differ from their 6-axis predecessors? Well, a good way to explain this is via a simple example. Hold your right hand in front of your chest with your right elbow sticking out horizontally to the side. Now pick something up and move it around. As you'll discover, you can do anything you want, but maintaining your elbow in this position makes things a little awkward, it takes longer to do things, and you occupy more space (you have to be careful not to let your elbow bump into anything).

We can think of this "elbow sticking out to the side" as being equivalent to a traditional 6-axis robot. Now allow your elbow to fall naturally to your side and repeat the same tasks you did before. It won’t take you long to discover that you can do things much faster and more efficiently, plus you occupy less space.


An Epson Flexion N-Series robot (Source: Epson Robots)

The cunning folding arm sported by Flexion N-Series robots allows it to rotate around and through itself. One result of this is that a Flexion N-Series unit provides 40% better space utilization; that is, it occupies a much smaller footprint on the floor. Apart from anything else, that means you can have more robots in a smaller factory. Furthermore, on the basis that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, a Flexion N-Series robot can move an object from one place to another more efficiently and in less time.

But wait, there's more, because the Seiko Epson Corporation also designs and manufactures a wide range of state-of the-art sensors, and the Epson Robots business unit employs these sensors to detect and address the issue of vibration (including overshoot and undershoot) when the robot head approaches its target. We can equate this process to the way in which a set of noise-cancelling headphones detects external noise and then applies an out-of-phase counterpart to mitigate its effects. Similarly, sensing vibration and damping it out results in lighter, faster arms that can carry the same weight as their more robust counterparts (think Bruce Lee versus the Hulk).

What? You want more? Well, the folks at Epson Robots also offer vision guidance options based on artificial neural networks and deep learning that allow the robot to detect components presented in any orientation and to determine the target locations for those components with great precision.

Furthermore, the folks at Epson Robots now offer force sensing and guidance technology. The easiest way to think of this is to take a machine nut in one hand and a bolt (machine screw) in the other, then close your eyes, bring your hands together, and screw the bolt into the nut. If you pay attention to what you are doing, you'll realize that you are using force-sensing in multiple ways -- from fine-tuning the alignment of the two parts to determining when the bolt is fully engaged to detecting when the nut is as far on the bolt as it's going to go. Now imagine a robot having a similar ability.

The important point here -- apart from the fact that we are talking about robots that truly deserve the "for the 21st Century" appellation -- is that Epson Robots is the creator of all these solutions. This means that, in addition to the robots themselves, you can add vision guidance and/or force sensing as completely integrated solutions, as opposed to trying to "bolt on" offerings from third parties.

It's been a funny old day, starting with me not even knowing that Epson made robots this morning to my being chief of the Epson Robot cheering squad this afternoon. The next thing I want to do is to see a Flexion N-Series unit in the flesh (no pun intended). How about you? Were you aware that Epson was a such a force in the robot market?

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