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I Saw A Snake-Inspired Robot In Milan

Last month, I traveled to Milan, Italy for the unveiling of Comau’s newest robot, the Racer3.

Last month, I traveled to Milan, Italy for the unveiling of Comau’s newest robot, the Racer3. Quite honestly, I had little idea of what to expect, but as I’m always looking for new story ideas and industry connections, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.

After three delayed flights and many hours spent staring at the back of my hands, I finally made it to Milan with time left to explore the historic center of town before a full day of presentations.

The following morning, I groggily dragged myself down to the hotel lobby at 8 a.m. to catch a shuttle that would take the other journalists and myself on a-two hour journey to the Castle of Rivoli in the Turin province of Italy.

I’ll spare you my romantic jargon about the Italian countryside. Just know this – I will definitely be returning. Upon arriving at the castle, we were met with coffee and pastries, and were soon thereafter ushered into a conference room.

In the first presentation, Tobias Daniel, Comau head of robotics in Europe and the Americas, told us what to expect. “For us, it’s a very important step into a new realm of robotics,” he explains. “We’re entering a new market. We’ve listened very carefully to our customers’ needs and the trends in robotics.”

View more: Photos of the Day: 6-Axis Articulated Robot Features 630 mm Reach

After several other presentations, Comau’s performance engineering manager Gian Paolo Gerio introduced the Racer3, Comau’s solution for the small robot market.

The aluminum, high-speed, six-axis articulated robot features a payload of 3 kg and a reach of 630 mm. It is the company’s response to a market looking for robotic automation within small to medium-sized enterprises and emerging countries.

In addition to the Racer3 robot, the R1C controller with a standalone case and 19-inch rack was also introduced. The 483 x 493 x 266 mm controller has two Human Machine Interface (HMI) options: the standard TP5 Standard Teach Pendant and the new Smartpad based HMI, which will become available in 2016.

According to Comau product manager Andrea Ivaldi, “The Racer3 is the fastest product in its range, and like a snake, it’s able to maneuver a wide number of positions.” The robot was even designed to resemble a snake.

After the presentation, we were all ushered downstairs onto one of the castle’s outdoor patios overlooking the town of Rivoli. It was there that we gathered around a curtain bearing the words “Exclusive Preview.” After all the build-up, I was excited to see if the robot could live up to the hype.  

The curtain was swiftly torn away, while fog rose up from the ground amidst loud, fast-paced music. Once the fog had settled, we were able to see the robot, extending up and down, left and right. The Racer3 does indeed resemble a snake in both its movements and its design.

After watching its movements for a few minutes, it appeared particularly suitable for assembly, machine tending, material handling, dispensing, and pick-and-place. Mathias Wiklund, Comau Robotics COO, explained it will be most useful for the food and beverage, electronics, plastics, and metalworking industries.

While the robot was sleek and agile, I was a little disappointed that the Racer3 was not a collaborative robot. Nevertheless, Wiklund had an admirable answer to my disappointment: “We will unveil more than one collaborative robot in the future, but it must be safe. I don’t want to release this product until we are sure it is 100 percent safe.”

Following the grandiose unveiling, we filed back into a shuttle that took us on a 20-minute jaunt to the nearby Maserati plant. The plant was unnervingly white, and dare I say cleaner than my own kitchen.

The Giovanni Agnelli Plant in Grugliasco officially opened in 2013, and manufactures the luxury Quattroporte flagship sedan and the smaller Ghibli, which has been popular among a younger generation of Maserati enthusiasts.

The plant features 85 Comau robots that perform spot welding and subcomponent insertions, among a variety of other tasks. The large, red robots effortlessly process each chassis, while supervised and run by a staff of Maserati technicians and factory workers. Nine cars are completed every hour and about 150 cars are completed per day. 

According to the company, the entire Maserati process involves the assembly of parts and subgroups through the insertion of 4,785 welding spots for each model. Of these, 1,083 are performed in advance and 3,702 are made during the sheet metal working phase (1,025 are done by hand and 2,677 are performed automatically).

View more: Photos of the Day: An Inside Look at Italy's Maserati Plant

On the line, 190 rivets and 243 arc-welded studs are also applied for each model, and almost 79 meters of semi-structural adhesive are spread (66 meters by the robot and 13 meters manually).

After the plant tour we boarded our shuttle to the assembly building on the other side of the Maserati campus. There, robots were sparse, while human workers dominated the assembly line. Posted on the body of each uniquely painted Quattroporte or Ghibli was a sheet of paper detailing every single customization.

Although Maseratis only come in four models, the company offers 18 billion unique customizations. The wheel, seats, upper dashboard, carpet, and paint are among a number of them. Our tour guide told us (somewhat jokingly) that we could go online and design our own Maseratis (yes, I did follow through).

By the time our shuttle took us back to Milan, it was about 8:30 p.m., and we were all exhausted and hungry. As you could expect, we ate some pasta and called it a night. However, I couldn’t help but ponder the evolution of robotics in the manufacturing industry.

Are collaborative robots the way of the future? Are you concerned about the safety issues surrounding collaborative robots? Will robots eventually replace humans in all aspects of the automotive industry? Share your thoughts by commenting below, tweeting me @kaylieannduffy, or at [email protected].

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