Grasping static electricity for revolutionary robotics
Demonstrating static electricity by using a charged balloon to levitate your hair is a classic science experiment. But, imagine if you could harness the same static cling to handle a material as fragile as an egg, as flimsy as soft fabric — or to assemble the uppers of Nike trainers at 20 times the pace of a human worker.
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Material handling is one of the most labour-intensive and expensive aspects of manufacturing, and when dealing with an array of different materials, the process is impossible to automate. Assembling a pair of Nikes requires as many as 40 pieces of material to be stacked and heated to create the upper — the flexible part that sits on top of your foot. For a human worker, arranging the pieces of material can take up to 20 minutes. However, Grabit’s technology allows a machine to do this in as little as 50 seconds.
Despite its evocative name, Grabit’s material handling invention does not mimic the human grabbing motion present in many robots. Instead, the start-up harnesses static electricity — referred to as electroroadhesion — to handle materials in a way no robot has before.
The concept of electroroadhesion was discovered at non-profit organization, SRI International, by Grabit’s co-founder and chief technology and products officer, Dr. Harsha Prahlad. The process uses a flat pad of electrodes to generate positive and negative charges on the surface. When charged correctly, the electrodes create an electric field that adheres to nearly any surface, allowing the robot gripper to pick up the part that is being handled.
Prahlad and company now hold 36 separate patents related to electroadhesion and the total number of patents issued, pending, granted and applied for is 75. However, upon identifying that materials handling was responsible for 60 to 80 percent of labour in manufacturing, he decided that it should be the first application in which he applied the technology. Following Grabit’s inception in 2013, Nike Inc. made an investment in the company and later became one of the first customers to buy its materials handling robot system, Stackit. Using Stackit, Nike can manufacture 600 pairs of shoes in just one eight-hour shift.
The new system would ultimately be able to assemble precise layers, such as those found in the Nike shoe upper, twenty times faster than a human being. Its return on investment period would be just two years.
The creation of Stackit began in summer 2015, but before the manufacturing process could begin, the company needed to decide on the right robot to mount the revolutionary electroadhesive gripper on. Having seen a Toshiba Machine robot arm used to mount one of its grippers by a customer — a Japanese circuit board manufacturer — Grabit was intrigued to see how the robot manufacturer’s machines could be used as a larger part of Stackit’s development.
“Choosing the wrong robot could have a detrimental effect on the entire design of the system,” explained Greg Miller, president and CEO of Grabit. “Two members of our team already had extensive experience in robot design, and both had been involved in the development of several SCARA robots. This prior understanding of industrial robots enabled us to fine tune our requirements before approaching any manufacturers.”