Objective of the SIMTech-NUS Industrial Robotics Joint Lab:

To provide a comprehensive range of capabilities, spanning from fundamental science to applied R&D in the realization of advanced robotic systems for use in manufacturing industry.

Market Drivers:

One of the major drivers to grow and sustain Singapore’s economy and industry is through raising productivity. One crucial move into increasing productivity is automation, particularly in operations which are currently still being carried out manually. An important challenge for automation in the manufacturing sector is the need for the automation system to adapt to the working environment rather than the other way around. Current successful automation systems have the working environment designed right from the start with robotic systems in mind, to operate in the working environment. Fixtures are designed for accurate placement of workpieces, with no human intervention during the execution of the automated task.

High-mix low-volume type of production is common in many high value manufacturing companies. In such production environment, the manufacturing line has to be re-designed and changed regularly, which results in downtime and drop in productivity. Besides raising productivity, there are also needs within the industry to remove human labor from health hazardous and dangerous tasks. These tasks are commonly found in industries such as marine, aerospace maintenance, repair and operations (“MRO”), oil and gas, and construction.

In the last decade, there has been an increase in applications where robots are used for operations such as deburring, grinding and polishing of large work pieces, which are conventionally done by human operators or computer numerical control (“CNC”) machines if precision is required. However, the running cost for these CNC machines are very high, especially for those which are able to handle large components. It is less cost-effective for processes or components that are considered to be relatively low value-added. Furthermore, CNC machines lack the dexterity to access some of the features on large components. Thus, to date, many such deburring processes are carried out manually. Manual operations offer the flexibility to handle large components and complex geometrical features. Nevertheless, manual operations are known to cause inconsistency in the finished outcome. Robots are potential candidates to replace the human in this task.  As traditional industrial robots are not designed for such material-removal operations, compliant motion capabilities provide a promising solution for robots to perform such tasks in a robust and effective manner.

Technology Drivers:

Apart from the industry needs, there are also a number of emerging technologies that influence robotic research. The technology drivers are summarized as follows:

  1. Light-weight structure materials, such as composites and ceramics. These materials be can employed to develop light-weight, high-strength, and high-damping robotic structures and mechanism (especially the moving parts). This will benefit the development of a responsive and stiff industrial robots/mechanism. Various emerging smart materials incorporate actuation and sensing into the material structure while maintaining the lightweight feature that is promising for future robotic applications.
  2. Advanced actuation methods, such as diamagnetic, electromagnetic, piezo-electric, thermo-mechanical actuations and pneumatic/fluidic muscles, as shown in Figure I. Advanced robotics seeks for new actuators, capable to exhibit a large number of desirable features, ranging from high power/torque density, high efficiency, zero backlash and low noise, to low reflected mechanical impedance, high bandwidth and accuracy. Emerging actuations have been dominating advanced robotics applications such as biomedical, aerospace, structural and humanoid robotic mechanisms.
  3. Advanced sensing and measurement technologies such as high-resolution displacement, velocity, force/torque, tactile, vision, and thermal sensors. These are essential to enhance the control performance of mechatronic systems. Enhanced perception capabilities, thanks to new generation sensing and measurement technologies, enable many critical applications for unstructured environments and delicate operations. Advanced sensing such as the stereo vision camera enables development of new robot teaching methods and task space sensing capabilities.
  4. High-performance control electronics such as high-speed digital signal processing/field programmable gate array (“DSPs/ FPGA”) and high-performance computing. These systems can be employed to develop high-bandwidth and high resolution controllers and amplifiers for high-speed and high-precision applications. Advanced algorithms that require high computation resource become feasible with new generation high performance control electronics.