In collaboration with FTN (The Faculty of Technical Sciences, Novi Sad), The University of Nis, and Sigmoid company, HTEC Group created a soft-grab three-finger robotic hand designed for the use in warehouses and manufacturing — the robotics research and development project funded by the Innovation Fund of Serbia.
The idea for this project came from Ph.D. Mirko Rakovic, Associate professor of Robotics at FTN, one of the leading researchers and experts in the field of robotics in Europe, and his company Sigmoid, with the vision to solve the issue of a robotic soft grab, a solution very much sought after by the warehousing industry today.
HTEC Group joined the project to help the brilliant team develop innovative technology that would provide a cost-effective and production-ready three-finger robotic hand project which is now at its last stage of development and will soon be commercialized.
As can be imagined, in an innovative project like this one, the team was presented with a lot of challenges.
Firstly, most of our engineers have never worked on an industrial robot before. They were mostly involved in telecoms and IoT product development, medical devices, and servers. This was an exciting new area and they needed to comprehend the world of industrial robotics from bottom up, and to dive into the complexities of robotic electronics, since the HTEC team mostly worked on the electronics of the robotic hand project.
One of our team members, David Senicic, has had previous experience working on industrial robotics within the RAMPup project under H2020 and his insights were highly valued and applied within the soft robotic gripper project.
Force based insertion was one of the modules that I have worked on before HTEC. This is only one of the pain points that require new ideas and solutions in the robotics field. Tracking forces and moments to try to pick and place an object was not an easy task. This, our 3 finger hand solution, soft robotics gripper, is more adaptable for a wide range of industry problems.
– David Senicic on complexities of robotic hand development
Secondly, system architecture for this kind of product is extremely complex and hard to predict. Our solution needed a new, experimental approach with a lot of initial research and trial and error during the process.
Then, choosing, making, building, procuring and combining all the complex elements and components of the hand with attention to detail and the desired outcome. Our goal was to make it light, but strong, with sophisticated grabbing features so that it can grab and carry a variety of shapes, sizes and weights — from something as small as a berry, to something as bulky as a fruit bag — without dropping or squeezing it. It goes without saying that we invested a great deal of time and effort in understanding every known type of human grip to start with and the logic behind something as seemingly simple as a human hand shape and motorics.
Finally, the control over the motorics of the hand needed to be fully automated and self-aware with the help of sensors and complicated communication protocols.
When research and development take place in an entirely green field of innovation, where radically new ideas are being tested, the biggest challenge is usually finding the available necessary materials and parts or making them.
Working together with the most accomplished robotics scientists in the country, HTEC team was able to bring the biggest value in these main areas where we excel:
1. Hardware design
Where we designed the shape of fingers, levers, and the mechanics. Our team had elegance in mind when designing a prototype scheme.
Sensor signal processing and translating the signal to automated control, we made sure to adhere to the industry standard protocols.
3. Sensor development
We are proud to say that we are probably the first robotics project in the world to develop in our labs the special type of sensors being used on this robotic hand. HTEC added specially designed sensors to the fingertips so that the hand can “feel” the shape and surface of the object and our teams managed to achieve the effect of smart grip. The hand we built can predict the force and type of grip needed and the location of the item that needs to be gripped. According to our knowledge and research, our approach was the first of its kind in the world, and due to the latest materials we discovered along the way, our product is more affordable than other options currently available on the market.
4. Consulting, idea validation, planning, and help in production
Needless to say that this exciting project required a lot of brain power coming from the two faculties and two companies joining forces, collaboratively researching and making decisions about the product.
Our team was led by our robotics expert, Darko Todorovic, the Head of Engineering and Delivery at HTEC, who is also currently working on his PhD dissertation in Human-Robot Interaction Anticipation with Application in Collaborative Robotics at the University of Nis, where he teaches in the department of Control Systems and also leads the Robotics Laboratory. Darko has a special interest in the application of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Data Science in business digitalization, improving organizational and business process efficiency across industries with a deep specialization in IoT and Robotics.
As mentioned earlier, the project was led by Ph.D. Mirko Rakovic and his company Sigmoid, in collaboration with the Faculty of Technical Sciences in Novi Sad and the University of Nis. Sigmoid was established back in 2017. Their main focus is on robotics and software development. Besides working on software development and product development for different robotic applications, the company also develops general software for various clients, as well as their own software products.
The biggest HTEC Group’s success on this project was the speed of innovation, fast iterations, new technology discovery and design, and the use of industry standards. We were able to develop a completely new technology in a short period of time (the project started in 2019) and create a commercially applicable robot hand that will soon be tested in some of the world’s most successful automated warehouses that HTEC Group and Sigmoid are partnering with.
The biggest HTEC Group’s success on this project was the speed of innovation, fast iterations, new technology discovery and design, and the use of industry standards.
On the whole, the hope for this product is to reduce the need for “slavery” work in warehouses around the world and leave menial factory work to the smart machine.
We developed one of the most advanced, affordable and flexible robotic grippers to soon hit the market with a small fund, but a brilliant team of people, the visionaries, which included university professors, students, Sigmoid and HTEC engineers.