Dec 12, 2023
Solutions for a Better Future / Feature Story
Products & Solutions
Expanding Human Potential with Innovative Robot Technologies
The biggest robot show in the world came back to Tokyo in 2023 and Panasonic was there to share its vision of humans and robots coexisting. The 25th International Robot Exhibition (iREX) was the largest-ever edition of the biennial trade show, boasting 654 exhibitors and 3,508 booths displaying technologies related to industrial, service and consumer robots.
Unleashing human potential by using robotics to augment possibilities
Held at Tokyo Big Sight from November 29 to December 2, iREX 2023 was organized under the theme of “Sustainable Societies Through Robotics,” reflecting not only the importance of environmentally sustainable industries but the need for robots amid dwindling numbers of workers, especially in Japan. Related themes of the show were cooperation and coexistence with robots.
Panasonic’s booth at iREX 2023 reflected the broad range of the overall show. The booth’s theme was “Augment Possibility with Robots” to illustrate the many ways robots can help in various settings. Panasonic exhibited about 10 robots and related technologies. Ranging from the cuddly social-interaction robot NICOBO to a display about the use of robots to disassemble used air conditioners for recycling, the booth covered a wide field of industries including healthcare, logistics and communications.
“With our presence at iREX 2023, we want more people to know about what Panasonic is doing in the field of robotics,” says booth supervisor Dr. Takeshi Ando, Director of the Robotics Promotion Office, Manufacturing Innovation Division, Panasonic Holdings Corporation. “By ‘Augment Possibility with Robots’ we want to convey how the effective use of robotics technologies can expand the abilities of human and the society.”
As a result of using robot technology in each Panasonic business to provide solutions to problems in various business fields, the range of robots is expanding. “Since our goal is to enrich people’s lives, we aim to provide products that can be used in as wide a variety of situations as possible, such as manufacturing, logistics, retail and so on,” Ando says.
Innovative robotic gripper deftly handles even the most delicate objects
One example is Panasonic’s development of a unique robotic gripper for grasping various objects. At a demonstration at iREX 2023, the gripper picked up and manipulated delicate, soft or flexible objects without crushing them and placed them in a box. Grasping those sorts of objects was something previously impossible for robotic effectors using suction pads. The gripper’s touch is light enough to pick up and hold a strawberry without damaging it.
Mounted on a multi-jointed robot arm, the gripper can dexterously grasp objects from a conveyor belt, change their orientation while carrying them and then deposit them in a box. Aside from fruit, it can do this with products such as jelly pouches, soft bottles or tubes of sauce or cream, as well as shampoo replacement packs.
The main characteristics of the gripper are twofold. Panasonic harnessed control technologies from its appliance business to give the gripper a high degree of force control—using sensors in its manipulators, the gripper can exert as little as 0.2 Newton on objects. The other main feature is the design of the gripper itself. It uses a unique combination of a gripper and twin conveyor belt system to grasp and move objects. If the belts move in opposing directions, the object will rotate.
“Even though the gripper does not look like a human hand, it can perform tasks similar to those that hands are suited for,” says development team head Hiroki Ikeuchi, Manager, Development Section 1, Robotics Promotion Office, Manufacturing Innovation Division, Panasonic Holdings Corporation. “This could be ideal for piece picking, a task involving placing individual objects in boxes one at a time. With the expansion of e-commerce, the logistics industry faces increasing need for automation amid personnel shortages.”
Addressing hospital staffing shortages via an autonomous delivery robot
In another example of how Panasonic is developing robots that can coexist with people and expand their potential, the company demonstrated a new hospital delivery robot at iREX 2023. HOSPI Trail is the latest version of the HOSPI autonomous robot delivery system, originally launched in 2013. Since then, they have been delivering medicine and other goods at 10 hospitals in Japan and two hospitals in Singapore.
Distinguished by touch-panel displays with a happy cartoon face, HOSPI robots use onboard sensors and hospital map data to autonomously navigate through wards, safely avoiding people and various obstacles along the way. It’s one of a number of healthcare robots developed by Panasonic, including the PiiMo robotic wheelchair and the Walking Training Robot for rehabilitation, both of which were also on display at iREX 2023.
In response to customer requests, Panasonic developed HOSPI Trail, a robot with a cargo cart that can deliver goods in a hospital without the need for someone to receive them. Previously, staff would have to be present to take the delivery, but HOSPI Trail can autonomously detach its cart of goods once it has navigated to its destination. At iREX 2023, HOSPI Trail demonstrated this new ability by rolling around a small area in the booth and decoupling itself from its cart.
“Panasonic is working on robots that can coexist in close quarters with people with the aim of realizing safe and comfortable lives while overcoming social issues such as population decline,” says developer Yuji Tadano, General Manager, Robotics Business Promotion Department, New Business Promotion Center, Panasonic Production Engineering Co., Ltd.
HOSPI Trail can haul two types of carts weighing up to 60 kilograms: a medicine cart consisting of two stacks of 18 trays, and a storage cart consisting of three 50-liter containers. The robot can travel at speeds up to 0.75 meters per second, and can operate for five hours after fully recharging for two and a half hours. Sales of HOSPI Trail began in September 2023 and it’s expected to help relieve staffing issues at hospitals.
“Staff shortages in hospitals are becoming quite serious,” says Tadano. “We think HOSPI can make a positive contribution in this area because we have accumulated a lot of know-how after doing this for a long time.”
Welcoming visitors to the Panasonic booth at iREX 2023, Ando notes Panasonic’s goals will continue beyond the tradeshow. “Our aim is to introduce robots as part of the infrastructure of daily life,” Ando says. “We would like to make them commonplace. Instead of developing each project on an ad hoc basis, we will be able to develop robots cheaply and quickly by carefully developing elemental technologies like Lego blocks and combining them. Half of the booth exhibits this time are promoting technology modules.”
Note: The part of this article which touches on the robotic gripper project is based on the results obtained from a project, JPNP20016, subsidized by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).
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