Empire Robotics’ New Multitasking VERSABALL® Gripper Ushers In Fundamental Agile Manufacturing Change

Showcase at RoboBusiness features VERSABALL Gripper’s Ability to Quickly Adapt to a Variety of Manufacturing Tasks with a Fraction of the Engineering Time and Effort

Boston, October 8, 2014 — Attendees at RoboBusiness in Boston, October 15 – 17, will encounter a new robotic gripper archetype as Empire Robotics demonstrates the VERSABALL now commercially available. Unlike hard grippers, the balloon-shaped VERSABALL conforms to and grips a wide range of objects without reprogramming. The new end-of-arm tool will pick and place objects ranging from light gearwheels to heavy bricks and delicate light bulbs — all in the same cycle without any changes to the application.

“VERSABALL is an end-of-arm gripping solution that has minimal impact on the bottom line and shrinks time between product cycles, pushing robotics into small- and medium-sized manufacturing facilities,” said Bill Culley, President of Empire Robotics.

The VERSABALL gripper integrates seamlessly with a wide range of robot arms. In this demo, the gripper is mounted on Universal Robots’ UR5 robot arm.

The demonstration illustrates how the VERSABALL attached to a UR robot arm offers an optimal choice for safe, collaborative robot applications with humans working in close proximity to robots on agile manufacturing tasks.

“Empire Robotics’ VERSABALL is one of the most unique new gripper technologies on the market,” said Ed Mullen, National Sales Manager with Universal Robots in North America. “We foresee the VERSABALL gripper as having the same, positive impact on collaborative robotics as our robot arm has had. The fact that the gripper is soft between grips and can be deployed on the fly further extends the safety and flexibility benefits of our robot arms.”

VERSABALL Solves Automation Challenges
Historically, robot integrators have spent a great deal of engineering resources designing specialized and varied grippers for industrial production. To meet the demands of agile manufacturing — typically with a low-volume, high-mix series of tasks — automating production involves frequent reprogramming and retooling. For many companies, the final solution often combines expensive mechanical, vacuum, and magnetic grippers into a complex end-of-arm tool that is highly specific to the application and not easily adaptable or reusable.

In contrast to traditional, fixed tooling, Empire Robotics VERSABALL delivers an out-of-the-box, multitask solution that easily adapts to a variety of tasks. In a matter of minutes, with a fraction of the engineering time and effort, VERSABALL can be programmed or reprogrammed to pick and place parts that vary — like ceramics — and consistent parts with varied orientations such as objects that fall randomly on a conveyor.

Industry Testing Leads to Commercial Availability
The commercial availability of the VERSABALL gripper follows extensive industry testing of the Empire Robotics’ research kit available since January 2014. The research kits include small- and large-sized heads, along with the necessary pneumatic base and accessories to properly operate the gripper.

Testing garnered significant interest from companies such as Callaghan Innovation in New Zealand, who is interested in the VERSABALL because of its ability to grip naturally varying objects.

“The VERSABALL adds value by gripping objects where rough surfaces would cause problems for suction cups,” said Phil Stucki, R&D Engineer with Callaghan Innovation. “Overall, we found VERSABALL quite easy to install, and it worked well for many applications.”


About the VERSABALL

The VERSABALL is a squishy balloon membrane full of loose sub-millimeter particles. The soft ball gripper easily conforms around a wide range of target object shapes and sizes. Using a process known as “granular jamming”, air is quickly sucked out of the ball, which vacuum-packs the particles and hardens the gripper around the object to hold and lift it. The object releases when the ball is reinflated. VERSABALL comes in 3.5- and 6.5-inch head models that use the same pneumatic base.

About Empire Robotics www.empirerobotics.com

Empire Robotics was founded in 2012 by CTO John Amend and President Bill Culley and is headquartered in Boston, MA. The company is a Cornell University technology spinout with a talented team of PhD researchers and engineers who are experts in soft robotics and the phase transitions of granular materials. Empire Robotics extends robot gripping into off-the-shelf, end-of-arm tools, a historically highly customized and complex field. In contrast, VERSABALL is an easy-to-program, versatile, turnkey gripper that enables agile manufacturing processes for small and large companies.


VERSABALL Demo Video


VERSABALL Frequently Asked Questions

What is the VERSABALL®?
The robotic gripper VERSABALL ushers in a fundamental change in automated manufacturing. Unlike any other end-of-arm tool, VERSABALL is in the shape of a squishy ball full of loose particles. Since it’s soft, it easily conforms around its target object — be it gear wheels, light bulbs, or plastic components— and then, using suction to remove all air between the particles, VERSABALL hardens around the target enabling it to be picked up. With a release of the suction, VERSABALL softens, releases its target, and the object is placed.

With VERSABALL, Empire Robotics creates a new gripper archetype able to flexibly adapt to multiple manufacturing tasks. Its simple, innovative versatility provides off-the-shelf ease of use that cuts engineering time and costs for custom tooling and complex handling tasks. 

How does it work?
Although VERSABALL appears like a balloon, it is filled with sub-millimeter particles which fluidly move around inside the ball, making it like a squishy stress ball. This soft surface easily conforms around a target object.

Now imagine inserting a straw that can pull the air out or blow it back in. As soon as you pull the air out, the particles lock in position, creating a solid mass around the target object. By inserting air back into the balloon, VERSABALL softens as the particles begin to move fluidly and the target object is released.

We typically refer to the “hardening” of the conformed particles as “jamming”. The slight volume contraction (just 1% less volume) that comes from removing the air creates a distributed pinch force on the object creating a secure frictional grip. The jamming transition is a fast, reversible phase shift taking the particles from moving fluidly to being locked into a solid position.

What automation challenges does the VERSABALL gripper solve?
Traditionally, robot integrators spend a lot of engineering time and resources on the design of specialized and varied grippers for industrial production. To meet the demands of agile manufacturing – typically with a low-volume, high-mix series of tasks – automating production involves frequent reprogramming and retooling. For many companies, the final solution often combines expensive mechanical, vacuum, and magnetic grippers into a complex end-of-arm tool that is highly specific to the application and not easily adaptable or reusable.

In contrast to traditional, fixed tooling, VERSABALL delivers an out-of-the-box, multitask solution that easily adapts to a variety of tasks. In a matter of minutes, with a fraction of the engineering time and effort, VERSABALL can be programmed or reprogrammed to pick and place parts that vary — like natural foods or ceramics, as well as consistent parts with varied orientations such as objects that fall randomly on a conveyor or in a box. With VERSABALL, several production steps can be handled simultaneously solving the challenge of picking and packaging multiple products on the same production line.  For example, multiple product lines all exiting a common paint curing step can be kitted and packaged by the same end-of-arm tool in the same location, saving time, cost, and floor space.

The machine vision used with the VERSABALL can often be simplified. Because VERSABALL passively conforms to the shape of the object regardless of its orientation, its machine vision only needs to communicate the location of the target object, not the orientation, nor where to grip it. It greatly simplifies the machine vision of the hard-tooled gripper that needs to precisely locate the target object, discern its orientation, and calculate where and how to grip it before picking it up—a computing process that is time consuming and expensive. If a part is to be oriented before placement, the solid, monochrome color of VERSABALL provides a clean, contrasting background and, instead of having to place on a monochrome background, the camera can simply assess the orientation in the VERSABALL grip. This saves companies a secondary pick and place of the part on a monochrome surface.

What is in your product kit?
We are currently shipping Research Kits that include the mounting plate and hardware, gripper body, and two head sizes (3.5 inch and 6.5 inch). These two head sizes together handle part sizes ranging from pills and coins to bottles and brake rotors. Within minutes, the gripper can be programmed to handle light bulbs, machined metal parts, and plastic consumer products.

Tell me about the interface. How is VERSABALL programmed?
The VERSABALL is designed to be an out-of-the-box, plug-and-play gripping solution. Using limited or even no custom hardware, VERSABALL can provide a wide range of successful gripping solutions by simply programming it using two commands: grip and release. Both commands involve brief bursts of compressed air, and with some tuning of the timing, this cycle can be completed with repeatable gentle contact on the target object, and reliable gripping and placement of the object.

The VERSABALL product kit includes a nearly universal mounting plate that matches the bolt patterns on most industrial robot arms, along with the bolts for mounting. Also included are push-to-connect air fittings and several lengths of hose to join air valves to the gripper. In many cases, all of the pieces needed to setup and start using your VERSABALL gripper are integrated into the kit.

Once connected, controlling the VERSABALL is very similar to controlling a pneumatic two-jaw parallel gripper. There are two air input ports, one pushes the gripper open, the other closes it. Before and between grips, the VERSABALL can be softened by providing a brief burst of compressed air into the first “soften” air input port. This inflates the gripper and fluidizes the grains inside. While VERSABALL is fluidized, the robot should be programmed to move the gripper over the target object and to then press onto the object so that the gripper deforms around the object.

Once in position, a burst of compressed air goes into the second air input port which turns that compressed air into vacuum inside the gripper. This “grip” burst of air causes VERSABALL to harden around the target object and grip onto it. The robot can then move the target object to its new location. Once the desired placement location is reached, a brief burst of air back into the first “soften” air input causes the gripper to release the object and reset to its original neutral shape, and it is now ready to grip the same or a new object.

Who are your customers?
Empire Robotics primarily serves major industrial manufacturing and packaging companies in the industrial automation and manufacturing markets. These companies want  the added agility and versatility that VERSABALL brings without the cost of multiple fixed tools, the only option available in the past.

Some of these customers are integrators who provide custom automation solutions to end-users by combining existing technologies (such as robot arms, conveyor belts, vision systems, and our VERSABALL gripper) to automate a manufacturing process. Often the end-users directly purchase the VERSABALL to solve several kinds of gripping tasks whether in food processing, automotive, consumer goods, or contract manufacturing. Robotics researchers are also bringing VERSABALL kits into their labs for the out-of-box functionality and application adaptability.

What is VERSABALL used for?
Our customers use VERSABALL for many kinds of manufacturing, packaging, kitting, and assembly of mostly small- to mid-size plastic and metal parts. In injection molded parts handling, for instance, customers use VERSABALL to handle the entire process from  removing the part from the mold, transferring parts in process, providing light assembly, and finally packing and kitting the finished products. VERSABALL’s great advantage comes with its flexibility in handling the varying parts as contracts change, its ease of integration, and its agility as one consistent tool that can be used for many different processes.

Some of the more innovative users are also creating “fixtures” that combine two or more VERSABALL units, or flip them upside down to use them to adaptively support objects.

Are the VERSABALL grippers well-suited for collaborative robots?
Yes, VERSABALL is a great fit when it comes to collaborative robots.

Firstly, collaborative robotics is about safety for humans when the robots work in close proximity. VERSABALL adds to the safety of a robot because it is soft between grips and while contacting a part. A finger caught between the VERSABALL and the target object is much less likely to be injured than with a hard tool.  While the arm is in motion, the VERSABALL is more of a padded glove for the robot as opposed to a bare hard tool.

Secondly, collaborative robots are agile. They can easily be reprogrammed and moved around the production floor. They are capable of taking on human manufacturing tasks on an ad-hoc basis to address just-in-time manufacturing, short cycles, and small series. VERSABALL excels in this context because of its versatility. It has the ability to go from handling one part geometry to another without reprogramming or retooling.

Can you tell me more about Empire Robotics?
Empire Robotics was founded in 2012 by CTO John Amend and President Bill Culley and is headquartered in Boston, MA. The company is a Cornell University technology spinout with a talented team of PhD researchers and engineers who are experts in soft robotics and the phase transitions of granular materials. Empire Robotics extends robot gripping into off-the-shelf, end-of-arm tools, a historically highly customized and complex field. In contrast, VERSABALL is an easy-to-program, versatile, turnkey gripper that enables agile manufacturing processes for small and large companies.

What made you think of designing VERSABALL this way?
The idea of using granular materials to assist robotic grippers has been around since the 1970s. And, the specific idea of using a single “bag” of particles as a stand-alone gripper was first suggested in the late 1980s, but never achieved the performance needed for practical applications.

In 2009, as part of a DARPA-funded collaboration between private and university research groups, including Cornell University, this research was revived and the group developed the first prototypes using party balloons filled with coffee grounds. Following this initial collaboration, the Cornell group continued work with the University of Chicago. Together, they were able to leverage a new understanding of granular materials along with developments in robotics technologies to develop jamming-based grippers that worked much better. At the time, cofounder John Amend was a Ph.D. student on the team working in Professor Hod Lipson’s Creative Machines laboratory at Cornell. The first scientific publication by Cornell appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2010, and follow-up work demonstrating performance increases and a novel ability to shoot/throw appeared in IEEE Transactions on Robotics in April 2012. 

Why has this not been done before?
For years, engineers and researchers have attempted to find a universal gripper that can pick up a wide variety of things—a ball, coin, screw, spring, cup, etc. Because the human hand is the most capable gripping device we know of, most have attempted to create mechanical human-like robot hands. These highly anthropomorphic machines are incredibly capable, but they are also complex and expensive.

VERSABALL opens a new frontier, delivering a versatile gripper that is simple, low cost, and highly capable.

What are the new materials you are using?
I’m sure you’re not surprised to learn that our current materials are not public knowledge. Our Research Kit features a proprietary polymer blend cover that delivers a tough durable exterior while maintaining that elastic squishiness needed to conform to a target object. The granular material is an inert, sand-like material specially designed and processed to create a strong grip and excellent longevity.

Thanks to all the time we’ve spent developing and testing new materials for VERSABALL, we’ve made many improvements in its durability, holding force, and actuation speed. Our materials development will continue to consistently advance and improve products for Empire Robotics’ customers.

How about energy consumption?
VERSABALL’s energy consumption is on par with suction cups. To save energy, the gripper only uses air at two points — to create the initial grip and to release the object. During transfer of the object, the gripper is sealed and doesn’t use any air, which helps maintain the grip on an object, even in the event of a loss of power or air.

How much weight can VERSABALL hold?
For the 6.5 inch standard VERSABALL and an ideally shaped object, the upper limit is about 20 lbs. But, the answer is really a bit more complicated. VERSABALL achieves different grips on different objects just as we humans do with our hands. If you have a handle to grab onto, you can lift a lot of weight, but if you’re palming a basketball, not so much.

The same is true for the VERSABALL, the ability to hold weight depends on both the object’s shape and the comparable size of the gripper. Generally, weight capacity scales with the size of gripper; larger VERSABALL grippers can hold more weight while smaller grippers hold less.

VERSABALL’s strength is in its ability to grip a wide variety of objects securely so that it can lift and manipulate objects, automating a large number of tasks in manufacturing processes.

How fast can VERSABALL go?
A 3.5 inch standard VERSABALL can achieve a grip in about 0.1 seconds and can release its target object in less than 0.2 seconds. A 6.5 inch standard VERSABALL can achieve a grip in about 0.7 seconds and can release its target object in less than 0.5 seconds.

Actuating a VERSABALL is a matter of removing the fixed volume of air from inside the gripper to vacuum-pack the grains. We can increase or decrease the actuation and release speeds based on a customer’s application needs by moving air into and out of the gripper quicker or slower. For instance, if you need to move very quickly, we can reduce the actuation time to near zero seconds using a high-volume air supply and by having the gripper harden as it is contacting the target object, rather than conforming fully before gripping. We demonstrate this in the High Speed video.

Have you released a list of performance specifications for VERSABALL®?
A preliminary list of performance specs can be found on page 5 of the User Manual. More detailed performance specs will be released as testing is completed and robust data is generated.

Do you provide services or products other than the VERSABALL?
Our focus is on the VERSABALL gripper and on developing other gripping and work holding products for industrial automation that use the same principal of rapidly hardening and softening materials. Our onsite consultants help customers implement and maximize the potential of VERSABALL technology. Often our expertise helps customers apply the VERSABALL’s competencies to an even broader array of tasks than they sometimes imagine once we get a direct understanding of their operations.

Does Empire Robotics have patents?
Empire Robotics holds an exclusive license from Cornell University for core pending patents behind the jamming gripper technology. Empire Robotics has also filed several new patents and is generating new intellectual property on a regular basis.

What financial backing does Empire Robotics have?
The company is funded by product sales, custom engineering projects, government research grants, and private investment.

In 2013, Empire Robotics received a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovative Research (NSF SBIR) Phase I award. Subsequently, the company received the Phase IB and Phase II awards providing significant funding to support the development of this technology. The company has several additional research grant applications currently in review.

In 2014, the company closed a seed round investment with several highly regarded angel investors and angel investment funds.

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Empire Robotics
Empire Robotics has revolutionized agile manufacturing with VERSABALL, a balloon-shaped, robotic gripper able to pick up and place a wide range of objects without reprogramming.

Empire Robotics Website