End-of-Arm Tooling and 3D Printing in Industrial Automation.

Published on : 14 December, 2023

End-of-arm tooling (EOAT), also known as end effectors, are devices and attachments that are installed at the end of robotic arms or manipulators. These tools play a crucial role in several factory processes and allow robot automation to perform a wide range of tasks at a high speed and with great precision.

End of Arm Tooling (EOAT) is essential for industrial production, as the design of the tooling has a direct impact on the efficiency, quality, and cost-effectiveness of robot automation. In this blog post, we will explore the basics of EOAT, including its usage, design considerations, and the advantages of 3D printing the components. We will also showcase five real-world examples of 3D-printed EOAT, highlighting its value in various scenarios.

What is EOAT used for?

End-of-arm tooling (EOAT) is not limited to just gripping objects on assembly lines. It can also be designed for other tasks, such as equipping a robot arm with a camera for quality control.

Here are some common uses for EOAT:

  • Workholding or grippers:
    These are designed to hold and transport objects, ranging from simple two-finger grippers to more complex configurations. Grippers and work holding account for the majority of industrial end effectors.
  • Static operation tools:
    These tools are used for tasks such as welding, drilling, or bending metal. They are often stationary or fixed in a particular position.
  • Observational tools:
    EOAT can include cameras and sensors to observe other work processes for tasks like quality inspection, part recognition, and material handling.
  • Applicators and sprayers:
    Tools such as paint sprayers or adhesive applicators are used in applications like painting or glue dispensing.
  • Tool changers:
    These allow a robot to switch between different tools or end effectors without manual intervention. This is particularly useful in applications where the robot needs to perform multiple tasks or work with different objects.
  • Screwdrivers and nut runners:
    These tools are used for fastening screws, bolts, and nuts in assembly operations.
  • Suction cups or vacuum grippers:
    These are used to lift and handle objects with smooth, flat surfaces, such as glass or sheet metal.
  • Cutting tools:
    In tasks involving cutting or trimming materials, robots can be equipped with cutting tools or blades.

EOAT design considerations

When designing an end-of-arm tool (EOAT) for a robot, it's important to consider various factors. These may include the size and weight of the objects that the robot will handle, the level of precision required, the production environment, and safety concerns. The main objective is to enhance the robot's performance and efficiency for a specific task.

  • Object characteristics:
    understand the size, weight, shape, and material of the objects the EOAT will handle. Design the tool to accommodate these characteristics, ensuring a secure grip or interaction.
  • Task requirements:
    consider whether the end effector needs to grip, observe, apply force, weld, cut, or perform other functions. This will impact the tool's design.
  • Strength-to-weight ratio:
    EOAT strength is critical for the robot to perform its job while avoiding equipment damage. Maintaining strength while lightweight can optimize robot performance in several ways. A lighter tool can help a robot perform tasks faster, more precisely, and with less energy consumption— ultimately leading to greater productivity and cost savings. Lighter tooling can also enable manufacturers to use smaller, cheaper robots.
  • Material selection:
    choose materials for the EOAT components based on factors like strength, durability, weight, and compatibility with the application's environment.
  • Weight distribution:
    balance the weight of the EOAT components to prevent overloading the robot arm or causing imbalances that can affect accuracy and precision.
  • Mounting and compatibility:
    design the EOAT to be easily mounted and compatible with the robot's end effector interface.
  • Programming and control:
    design the EOAT with the necessary features to enable easy programming and integration with the robot's control system. This includes setting up gripping strategies, motion profiles, and coordination with other robot functions.
  • Adaptability and tool changers:
    consider whether the EOAT should be adaptable for different tasks or if it should support tool changers for quick, automated switching of end effectors.
  • Ease of integration:
    ensure that the EOAT can be easily integrated into the existing production line, collaborative robot systems, or other automation equipment.
  • Cost-efficiency and supply chains:
    balance performance and features with your factory’s budget and need-based lead time considerations. Industrial 3D printing makes EOAT on-demand in a fast, cost-effective way without compromising the tool’s performance.
  • Durability and maintenance:
    ensure that EOAT components subject to wear can be replaced easily and that maintenance procedures are straightforward to minimize downtime.

Benefits of 3D printing EOAT

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has significantly advanced the design and production of End-of-Arm Tools (EOAT) for industrial robots. It offers various benefits that have made it a game-changer in the field of EOAT design. Below are some of the key advantages:

  • Faster tool delivery:
    3D printing can create a tool within hours or days, whereas outsourcing production can take weeks or even months. If it takes 12 weeks to get an end-of-arm tool made and 16 weeks to get the production cell up and running, only four weeks remain for programming, testing, and confirmation required to optimize the robot arm. Having the part sooner gives more time to optimize programming and workflow throughput instead of troubleshooting.
  • Digital inventory:
    Manufacturers can create and maintain a digital repository of EOAT designs by leveraging 3D printing. Parts can be stored in the cloud and printed on-demand to any network-connected printer, eliminating the need for large inventories.
  • Cost efficiency:
    3D printing significantly reduces the cost of producing EOAT components in many cases. Reduced material waste, no tooling costs, and no additional setup required for customization, design changes, and complex geometries. For instance, Dixon Valve replaced $290 machined grippers with $9 3D-printed composite grippers.
  • Increased design freedom:
    Additive manufacturing allows intricate and complex geometries to be created that may be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing methods. This opens up new possibilities for EOAT design, enabling innovative solutions for unique tasks and higher optimization levels.
  • High-strength, low-weight:
    3D printing significantly reduces the weight of EOAT components. Lighter tools mean less strain on the robot arm, less power needed, and often improved performance. Strong, continuous fiber-reinforced composites make it possible to lightweight parts without compromising strength and stiffness.

Examples of 3D-printed EOAT

Dixon Valve, a manufacturing company, has been able to achieve significant cost and time savings through the use of 3D printing technology. They have utilized the Markforged Mark Two 3D printer to create various components, including composite robotic gripper jaws, metal ID gripper jaws, and spot welding shanks.

Previously, Dixon Valve had to keep a high volume of copper shanks in stock for assembly, which took up space on the floor and tied up cash. Each machined copper shank cost roughly $2,500 a piece and came with a 12-week lead time. However, with the introduction of 3D printing, the lead time was cut down to just 1 week, and the unit costs decreased to approximately $350. This helped reduce the amount of capital tied up in inventory.

The Markforged 3D printer was also used to create chemically resistant gripper jaws for robotic arm tooling. These jaws were used to transfer fittings between machining centers and had to withstand exposure to corrosive fluids during repeated clamping. With the ability to retool a robotic arm in just 24 hours, Dixon Valve realized a 96% reduction in costs and a 93% decrease in lead time required for the production of these components.

Additionally, Dixon Valve faced challenges in creating grippers capable of holding abrasive surfaces. The threads on these grippers quickly wore out due to their surface hardness being similar to thermoplastics. However, by adopting the Metal X to print these grippers, Dixon Valve maintained the benefits of 3D printing while enhancing part durability. This shift to metal 3D printing enabled Dixon Valve to achieve a 98% cost saving and a 91% lead time reduction. The metal ID gripper jaws are hard enough to process thousands of stainless steel pipe couplings without wearing them down.

A company called Lean Machine, which is a contract manufacturer was facing difficulties in quickly setting up manufacturing processes for new purchase orders (POs). However, they were able to overcome this challenge with the help of Markforged printers. By using these printers, they were able to create higher-yield manufacturing cells in just a few days, instead of weeks. This helped Lean Machine to take on more clients and produce more parts, ultimately resulting in higher profits. You can check out the video below to see Lean Machine’s 3D-printed carbon fiber gripper jaws in action.

Another company Athena 3D Manufacturing was able to improve their production process by installing a collaborative robotic arm to change their printers over, even when technicians were not around. This resulted in a 40% increase in utilization of their Markforged fleet, enabling them to deliver quality printed parts to their customers faster.

Why use Markforged for printing EOAT?

Markforged's patented Continuous Fiber Reinforcement (CFR) technology enables us to quickly produce lightweight parts that are as strong as aluminum. Markforged Metal X System is an innovative metal fabrication solution that is fast, cost-effective, and user-friendly. Unlike traditional metal fabrication techniques, the Markforged system uses bound powder feedstock, which is much safer and easier to use. You can print stainless steel, tool steels, pure copper, and Inconel without the need for highly trained operators or extensive personal protective equipment (PPE).

To make the design process even faster and easier, we provide Simulation software that allows you to validate the performance of carbon fiber composites, fiberglass composites, and 17-4PH stainless steel parts before printing. And when it comes to security, Markforged is an industry leader in cloud data security. We are proud to be the first additive manufacturing platform to achieve ISO/IEC 27001 certification.

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