The GRIT cobot from Kane Robotics is reported to be the first collaborative robot built specifically for composites sanding and weld grinding.
By Mark Shortt
One of the technologies on display at the WESTEC/AeroDef 2023 trade show in November was a collaborative robot (cobot) shown polishing a propeller blade. Introduced last March by Kane Robotics, the versatile GRIT™ cobot is reported to be the first collaborative robot developed specifically to automate composites sanding and weld grinding processes.
According to Kane Robotics Chief Operating Officer Alan Hiken, the demonstration highlighted the GRIT cobot’s versatility in applying different processes—not just on the propeller blade, but on various parts with similar shapes, such as a windmill blade, a wing, or a turbine on a steam generator.
“It enables us to appeal to folks who have different applications that are not necessarily a propeller blade,” Hiken told Design-2-Part in an interview. “It also enables us to show that you could do a variety of processes with this same piece of equipment.”
The GRIT cobot was designed to work alongside people to perform tedious material-removal tasks, from sanding and grinding to polishing and deburring. A release from Kane Robotics said composites manufacturers have used the cobot to help complete a variety of different types of jobs. Such projects include sanding primer from machine components; removing coating and sanding surfaces for paint preparation or repairs on helicopter main rotor blades; polishing fighter jet canopies after thermoforming to remove orange peel and achieve optical clarity; and deburring and weld grinding metal castings and other parts.
“I think collaborative robots are certainly going to play a bigger and bigger part in the future, in many different aspects of our lives,” Hiken said. “Manufacturing and material removal is just one area, and it happens to be the area that Kane is focused on.”
Kane Robotics recently joined the Universal Robots (UR) UR+ ecosystem, a platform of tools and accessories that work in conjunction with Universal Robots’ robotic arms on manufacturers’ shop floors. Because it is certified for the UR+ ecosystem, Kane’s GRIT cobot can integrate a variety of UR robotic arms and end-of-arm tools to solve material removal challenges, according to a release from Kane Robotics.
“Inclusion in the UR+ program, leveraging UR’s traction as a market leader in collaborative robotics, will further enable customers to access our turnkey solutions that incorporate both the UR robotic arm and end-of-arm tools to dramatically improve various material removal tasks, including sanding, grinding, and finishing,” said Kane Robotics CEO John Spruce, in the release.
Hiken said Kane’s team enjoys using the UR platform. Hiken is a veteran engineer with extensive experience in the aerospace and defense industry, particularly with composite materials.
“They (Universal Robots) are the 800-pound gorilla in the world of cobots,” said Hiken. “They’ve got a large team and support network, and the ecosystem of peripherals that they’re building offers a great deal of flexibility. My engineers like using the Universal robot because it’s easy to use and program.”
Although the GRIT cobot is certified for the UR+ ecosystem, it is an arm-agnostic tool that is capable of integrating other tools as well.
“We can use other cobot systems or collaborative robot arms on the GRIT system,” Hiken said. “And while there are a plethora of different robot manufacturers out there, we are teamed with FANUC as an authorized systems integrator for them, as well. So, we have strategically teamed with the two primary cobot manufacturers in North America. Here and in Europe, Universal Robots and FANUC are our partners and collaborative robot arm suppliers.”
Kane Robotics was founded in 2019 by Spruce, an executive and entrepreneur who has served as CEO of Kane Aerospace and Mechtronic Solutions, Inc., among others. Like Hiken, he knows his way around the aerospace and defense industry, so it’s no surprise that Kane Robotics quickly established a niche in solving problems for manufacturers in the industry. But Hiken said that the material removal capabilities of the GRIT cobot translate readily across different industries.
“We focused on aerospace and defense because that’s where my background and John’s roots, to a large degree, lie,” Hiken said. “To use an old-fashioned term, that’s our ‘Rolodex.’ That’s where our contacts exist. But we’ve found opportunities in the semiconductor industry, in the woodworking industry, and we see opportunities in the general manufacturing, welding industries that support commercial construction: metal working, building fabrication, automotive work.
“So, the processes and platform are readily translatable into these other industry verticals,” he added. “We fully expect to be offering products that are going to appeal to those industry verticals as we continue to grow and expand our business.”
Hiken said Kane Robotics is working to help customers understand that automation doesn’t mean what it used to mean 10 years ago. “There’s a much lower cost, lower risk approach to bringing automation into some of these manual tasks. And you’ve got some options that didn’t exist just a few short years ago,” he said.
Design-2-Part caught up with Alan Hiken recently to learn more about Kane Robotics’ GRIT collaborative robots, how they work in conjunction with UR robotic arms, and how they can help companies solve manufacturing challenges through automation. Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Design-2-Part: Kane Robotics describes its GRIT cobot as “the first collaborative robot built specifically for composites sanding and weld grinding.” What unmet need did Kane identify in these processes that led it to create the GRIT cobot?
Alan Hiken: Basically, we’ve got this army of people who are doing a task (manual sanding and grinding), and they’re all doing it a little bit differently. Companies are constantly hiring people to do it because it’s hard. People don’t want to do it all day long, so there’s a labor shortage, there’s a training issue, and there’s a health and safety issue related to these tasks. The automation of these tasks, historically, has been very expensive and very difficult.
These collaborative robots have come along and have enabled [manufacturers] to start automating some of these processes, at least to a degree, in order to alleviate some of the issues related to the labor shortage, quality, productivity, and health and safety.
D2P: When you talk with prospective customers, what are their biggest pain points that they’re trying to solve, and that you’re able to address through this robot?
AH: It’s the labor shortage—these jobs are hard to fill and to keep people doing all day long or on a regular basis. If it’s a five-day-a-week job, a lot of companies will have their workers do this for one or two days, and then they do something else for a couple of days. And then they go back to this task. It’s not something that you can just perform, because it’s physically demanding, it can be debilitating, and it exposes workers to injuries, like repetitive arm motion injuries or carpal tunnel syndrome. It also exposes them to inhalants, dust, debris, and other things that just aren’t good to be around if you had your choice.
There are also productivity improvements you’re always looking for through automation. You’re hoping to get some consistency. People do these tasks, so there’s a lot of variability because they’re people. Some of these tasks you do differently in the morning than you do in the afternoon, based on how much energy you have, how tired you are, what you’re thinking about. And the robot is, obviously, not going to be susceptible to those kinds of inconsistencies.
Those are typically the issues that customers are looking to resolve. It could be any one of those, individually, or it could be a combination of all of those that they’re trying to address.
D2P: As a tool for solving these challenges, what makes the GRIT cobot superior to competing cobot systems?
AH: There aren’t a lot of competing cobot systems that are focused on material removal applications, or sanding, grinding, and finishing. Historically, if you were going to try to automate these processes, it would be with a larger industrial robot system that would come with numerous other concerns, issues, or risks, including cost, time, complexity.
The cobots offer a light weight, low-cost approach to automate these tasks, like material removal, and are affordable for a small- or medium-sized enterprise to consider automation. Historically, these companies may not have even considered automating tasks because of the cost and complexity. But the cobots offer a lower risk approach to introducing automation, and they offer the opportunity to automate some of these difficult processes through the advent of not only the robot, but some of the end-of-arm tooling. They’re allowing and enabling these types of processes to move into the world of robotics.
So, it’s a combination of technologies, but the GRIT incorporates these into a solution that we provide to our customers. And we think that solution is going to appeal to a lot of small and medium sized enterprises, as well as the larger OEMs.
D2P: What productivity improvements can companies potentially achieve with the cobot?
The robots are relentless; they just keep working. They’re not distracted by water cooler conversations or bathroom breaks, nor are they worried about their vacation coming up. Our customers typically see up to 50 or 60 percent productivity improvements just because of the relentless nature of the cobot. Anything that a human operator is spending hours on, the robot is going to have a significant productivity improvement on that process.
We make sure that customers are getting the best return on their investment and the productivity improvements that are going to help them address their labor shortage. Many customers are on what I call a hiring treadmill. They hire people for these jobs, they train them to do these jobs, and then, if the employees are good at these jobs, they usually get promoted to go do something else. Then you’re back to replacing them. Also, many people don’t like doing these [manual sanding, grinding, and finishing] jobs after being trained for them, and they quit. Then you’re back to hiring for these positions.
So that’s a common theme for customers who have this type of work. It’s not a high-paying job, it’s not a master skill job in a lot of cases. It’s usually closer to an entry level job, a lower paying job, and it’s not something that people tend to do for long periods of time. So, companies tend to be on this hiring treadmill of constantly needing to replace that human worker who is doing these tasks.
D2P: You’ve mentioned some of the industries where GRIT can help. Do you see any other potential applications for the cobot?
AH: Certainly, our background and strength is in aerospace and defense, a market that we understand well. But the processes—material removal, sanding, grinding, finishing—are not just applicable to aerospace. They cross over many industries—automotive, general manufacturing, construction, woodworking, home furnishing fixtures, railings, and bannisters. So, the application of the technology is going to continue to broaden outside of our primary applications in aerospace projects.
We certainly see the growth and interest in cobot welding by many industries. The same folks who are doing cobot welding are likely to be interested in cobot weld grinding. We see growing interest from the metal material removal and weld grinding industries, as well, so we figure that’s going to be a growth area. But our focus will continue to be on material removal applications.
D2P: I understand the GRIT cobot works in conjunction with Universal Robots robotic arms. Does it work with the UR20?
AH: We do have applications that incorporate the UR20. We are using the UR10 in a lot of our applications because I like to say, ‘Don’t buy more robot than you need.’ Yes, it’s nice to have the additional reach or the additional payload if that’s required for the application. But if that’s not required, we wouldn’t recommend that you buy more robot than what you need to accomplish your task. Those are things that Kane will look at critically when evaluating an application. We’re going to bring our experience to bear, as well as what the customer is trying to achieve, and make sure those are incorporated into the system.
D2P: How does working with Universal Robots’ robotic arms expand GRIT’s capabilities? What new advantages does this integration bring?
AH: Historically, Universal Robots has been extremely successful in selling these collaborative robots to companies where they’ve been do-it-yourself (DIY) [solutions]. The robots are easy to use, very simple, and they can be set up without a large automation team or big set of infrastructure. That appealed to a lot of companies.
But as we move into more sophisticated applications that require force control, that require more than just a few points of path programming, we, generally speaking, drive off of a CAD file to acquire surfaces. So, bringing in readily available off-the-shelf technologies—but bringing them in to collaborate and talk and work with the Universal Robots arm to perform these tasks—is where Kane integrates these elements into a solution.
We don’t really like to use the term ‘integrator’ because, historically, it has implied a third party that’s going to charge a customer thousands of hours of time and effort to develop a customized solution. Whereas we are using a turnkey solution with a very minimal amount of customization to achieve a certain task.
We’ll customize the path program based off the CAD file, and we’ll develop the feeds and speeds for the robot based off how the process is being performed today by a human. If a human is doing it, then we feel very confident that we can teach a collaborative robot to do it.
Whereas in the past, you didn’t have that option. You had to go to an industrial robot solution, which was going to be much more involved. The robots move faster, they have more payload, they don’t have the same safety protocols. There’s a lot more involved in traditional industrial automation solutions, where the cobots are offering an alternative.
It doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be significant growth in that opportunity for industrial automation systems, but it does mean that there’s a way to look at automation a little bit differently than it’s been looked at in the past. It used to be an ‘all in’ kind of an effort, whereas now you can approach automation in a lower cost, lower risk-based approach, using these collaborative robots without introducing a whole bunch of complexity into the process at one time. That’s basically the approach that Kane takes with these systems. It works with the customer to keep it simple.
D2P: The GRIT cobot system uses an pre-engineered platform that makes it more flexible or reconfigurable. In what ways can it be reconfigured through software programming to take on different tasks and meet custom specs for different parts?
AH: One of the nice things is we often drive the robot path from the CAD file of a part. We can load, basically, any CAD file—a propeller blade, an aileron, a fairing, a stringer, anything that’s developed in a 3D format—and we can use that to develop robot arm paths. That enables you to switch from part to part.
If you wanted to switch from one process to another, that typically can be enabled by the change of an end-of-arm tool. You might use a random orbital sander. If you’re sanding on a particular part where deburring, you would apply a deburring tool. The robot is more than capable of the adaptability and the flexibility to adopt hardware changes, for the end-of-arm tool, as well as software changes related to part geometry.
D2P: With all of the renewed interest in manufacturing domestically, how do you see the GRIT cobot helping manufacturers keep their production onshore, in the U.S.?
AH: I think it will enable companies that have this kind of [manual] work that’s difficult to hire for, to keep it here instead of moving it to third world countries or down to Mexico, or someplace where the labor is still available to do some of these unpleasant and difficult manual tasks. I think this is going to enable manufacturers to automate some of these processes, allow the human worker to do things that human workers are better suited for, and reduce exposure to the hazards of manual material removal processes.
D2P: What are you hearing from your customers about their use of the cobot system? What are they saying about it?
AH: Certainly, they’re pleased with the productivity improvements, but another pleasant surprise that our customers report is they tend to get longer life out of their abrasives. The abrasive lifetimes are being increased two- and three-fold in some cases because the robot is very consistent. It’s applying the full area of an abrasive, whereas an operator tends to push in one particular area, one particular spot. An operator gets uneven wear, and that inconsistency in how they apply the process generally translates into shorter life expectancy for their consumables. So, increasing the life of consumables is certainly one of the pleasant surprises that customers report.
Most of our customers who buy a system end up buying a second or a third system. I think this is a testament to the fact that they see the advantages that the robot system brings, as well as the flexibility. In some cases, they’re buying multiple systems to do the identical task. In other cases, they’re buying additional robots to do a different task. So, it’s not just in one bucket.
And I think the third thing is employees seeing that this isn’t something intended to replace them. It’s really a tool to help them do their job better. It’s a more sophisticated, smart tool, and we’re trying to put it into the hands of operators to reduce their exposure to dust, dirt, debris, and inhalation of contaminants—as well as dull, dirty, repetitive, and tedious tasks that subject them to repetitive motion injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, vibratory motion injuries, and things of that nature. Many employees appreciate the fact that their employers are looking out for their health in trying to reduce their exposure to those elements.