Thursday 22 April 2010

The elephant in the room...

Festo's Bionic Handling Assistant set to revolutionise handling technology

At this year's Hannover Fair (ending on 23rd April), Festo launched its latest bionic concept project.

Festo uses bionic concepts in the same way the car industry uses concept cars - they are not saleable products but are proof of research ideas and demonstrations of design concepts, intended to stimulate dialogue with customers, suppliers and partners. Known as the Bionic Handling Assistant, the latest concept offers a completely flexible - and safe - means of moving objects from one position to another. It could revolutionise the design of materials handling systems, and potentially opens up a host of entirely new application areas involving direct, non-hazardous contact between humans and robots. These include equipment for use in hospitals, rehabilitation and care homes for the elderly, as well as agricultural machinery and even domestic appliances - anything, in fact, that requires risk-free mechanical assistance.

The Bionic Handling Assistant is the latest innovation to spring from Festo's Bionic Learning Network, which is an alliance of educational establishments and specialist companies tasked with exploring bionic solutions for automation applications of the future. The inspiration for the Bionic Handling Assistant comes from elephants' trunks -a fundamental part of the animals' olfactory system - which are muscular, flexible extensions to their upper lip and nose, with finger-like growths known as proboscides which enable them to grasp food and other small objects.

The Bionic Handling Assistant employs highly innovative biomechatronics technology and introduces an entirely new concept, whereby direct contact between machines and their human operators - whether accidental or intentional - is no longer hazardous. In the event of a collision with a human, the Bionic Handling Assistant yields immediately, without modifying its desired overall dynamic behaviour, and then resumes its operation. Unlike heavy industrial robots, the Bionic Handling Assistant is characterised by an excellent mass-payload ratio, provides smooth operating motion with more degrees of freedom, and makes very efficient use of resources.

The Bionic Handling Assistant consists of three basic elements for spatial movement, together with a hand axis with a ball joint, and a gripper with adaptive fingers. Each basic element comprises three circularly arranged pneumatic actuators tapering at an angle of 3°; each actuator is supplied with compressed air at the interfaces of the basic elements. Opposing movements are effected by the loop-like design of the actuators, which act like a spring when the compressed air is exhausted. Their extension is measured by position sensors, which control the system's spatial movement. In the hand axis, three further actuators are arranged around a ball joint; their activation displaces the gripper by an angle of up to 30°. Festo SMAT safety position sensors register the travel and ensure precise alignment, and the company's VPWP proportional valves are used for pneumatic control. The overall result is a highly flexible system that can transmit high forces despite its lightweight design.

The Bionic Handling Assistant is manufactured using the latest additive rapid manufacturing technologies, which facilitate the production of individual moveable system components from polyamide. This is applied in thin layers onto a base platform, with each new layer being fused into place by means of a laser beam, hardening the layers only where it is programmed. This is a form of 3D printing which now makes it possible to cost effectively produce intricate, complex products in small batch sizes.

Readers may be interested to view the video of the Bionic Handling Assistant here. This page also provides detailed information about Festo's other bionic projects.

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