Building a Robot Army? Use the Force (Sensor)
Robots have trouble with delicate motions, and thus are inferior to humans in delicate assembly applications. But will ATI’s new
multi-axis force/torque sensor change all this?
by John Hitch
The smartphone in your pocket. The lap- top on your desk. The tablet on your workbench. They all comprise thousands of components and they’re all mostly
still hand-made. China’s population is around
1. 4 billion, so there’s no shortage of workers
to make all these complicated devices, but
that cheap labor ain’t as cheap as it was a
According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitive Index, labor costs rose
ATI INDUSTRIAL AUTOMATION AXIA80 6-AXIS FORCE/TORQUE SENSOR
modestly in China from $0.30/hr in 1995 to
$0.70/hr in 2005, before skyrocketing to
$3.30/hr in 2015.
That jump doesn’t seem like much compared to how much Western laborers make,
but the percentage jump of manufacturing
labor from 2005 to 2015 in China is 470% vs.
America’s 126%. So something’s got to give,
and it sure as heck won’t be CEO salaries.
We all know the answer is robots, but that
has been a bit difficult to implement universally.
“There’s been a movement in the industry
to start automating man-made products,”
states Robert Little, CEO of ATI Industrial
Automation. “In order to for them do that,
they need robots. In order for those robots
to be completely successful, they need force
Sensing the force in this case requires
no Jedi training, only a disc-shaped force/
torque sensor attached at the wrist of the
robot arm. ATI’s force/torque sensors consist
of a transducer, shielded high-flex cable, and
intelligent data acquisition system, Ethernet/
DeviceNet interface, or F/T controller. Unlike
load cells, which only operate on a single axis
and measure only push, these sense torque
and side loads along all six axes.
“It’s similar to a handshake,” Little explains.
“It can measure the touch and feel and gives
life to robots. It’s a feedback mechanism.”
These sensors allow a doctor a continent
away to perform surgery using a robot. The
haptic feedback allows the robot to sense
when it’s made contact with tissue, and make
BEHIND THE SCENES NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
precise incisions with the right amount of
force in areas the surgeon cannot view.
If a sensor can do all that, actually animate
an automaton and give it human-like touch,
it’s probably costly.
You’d be right. One of ATI’s force/torque
sensors can run $5,000 or more. But as
Little notes, “A sensor that’s expensive is
less likely to be used.”
And for factories wanting to get deeper
into automation, their robots will need these
sensors to do more of what those human
laborers can do in terms of dexterity and
efficiency, while only paying the purchase and
integration price and routine maintenance
costs. Little says ATI’s newest force/torque
sensor, the Axia80, will provide everything
an automated production line would want
with one huge change: a 45% price drop.
Physically, all the electronics are built into
the transducer, as opposed to being in a separate box outside of the robot. This keeps the
cost down and footprint smaller, while excelling in accuracy, resolution, and robustness.
Another key to keeping the cost down is
developing a way to mass produce the components, which are made in Apex, N.C.
The sensor also has high overload protection, between five and 20 times more than
what is required.
“These robust sensors are designed to
handle crashes and abuse,” Little says. “Ro-
bots make mistakes.”
New to this product are the advanced
filters that slash signal noise and allow for
light loading measurements, meaning they
can be used to handle those 5-g chips only
humans were trusted to insert.
Noise distorts resolution, so high signal
noise would be akin to screaming in that
surgeon’s ear while making that delicate
incision. With this cheaper sensor that brings
the overall cost of a robot down, automated
assembly appears to be more feasible in
“A robot doing assembly with force control
will makes decisions based on that force
feedback and change its motion to get the
assembly accomplished,” Little says. “It be-
comes alive. All of a sudden, it’s not a pre-
programmed path anymore, it’s a path that‘s
changing with the environment.”
Little does note some work still needs to
“Our product has a big road ahead of it to
do this electronic assembly, he says.
Universal Robots already likes what it sees.
ATI is developing a sensor package with a fully
integrated software interface for all Universal
Robots models (UR3, UR5, UR10).
The combo just debuted at Automate 2017
in April at Chicago’s McCormick Place.
The first units will ship to China in March
and take U.S. orders this June.
ATI’s new low cost Axia80 force-torque sensor package will be
available this year with a fully
integrated software interface for
all Universal Robots models, CEO
Robert Little says.
An “inside” look at ATI’s 6-axis force/torque sensor design.