Some random thoughts about the ProMat/Automate 2011 show, just winding up at Chicago’s McCormick Place:

From a sheer visual standpoint, one of the most impressive things I saw was Kuka’s seven-axis robot, trade-named LWR4+. It has integrated force sensors in every joint, which helps give it an unprecedented degree of control. The thing looks a bit spooky, just because it’s so eerily steady. You could balance a shot glass full to the brim at the end of the arm, bend the rest of the arm any way you can think of, and never spill a drop. It can be programmed to return to its original configuration once pressure is removed, and can be programmed to resist that pressure with varying degrees of force. I’m not currently aware of any packaging-specific applications that require such hyper-precision, but I’m sure there must be some, or will be eventually.

FANUC Robotics showed off what it bills as the world’s biggest, strongest SCARA robot. It has a payload of up to 1,350 kilos (2,976 pounds) and a vertical reach of 6.2 meters (20 feet). Those statistics were emblazoned on a big pallet-sized block that the robot swooped through the air with the greatest of ease. Are we going to progress from robotic palletizing to robotic pallet-loading?

Dating myself here, but I remember when a robotic palletizer was something you saw at trade shows and nowhere else. Now they’re becoming the norm. Some of the robot people I met were confidently predicting the end of “ram-style” palletizing, although I’m not sure I’d go that far. Yet.

As long as I’m reminiscing, I might as well mention that I can remember when servo motors were exotic, expensive things, rare as jewels. At ProMat, I saw several conveyor systems that used segmentation to push, tilt or drop individual objects off the main belt. Each segment had its own servo.

Sometimes I think monochrome cameras are about to go the way of black-and-white TVs. As cameras develop smart capacity, they can do double duty by performing both color inspection and character recognition. Matrox Imaging has rolled out its Iris GT smart camera to do just that. On the other hand, there still is a place for monochrome, or at least Sony Corp. thinks so. They came out with the XCD-MV6, a miniature monochrome camera for space-restricted applications, especially where the end user is transitioning from analog to digital technology.

One of the biggest attractions, which made it onto a local morning news show, was Yaskawa’s blackjack-playing robot. Its tiny suction-cup “hands” handled the cards perfectly, even holding up a sign when appropriate that read “Sorry, you lose. Next player please.” It was, alas, appropriate in my case, when I hit on 13 (the robot had a king showing) and drew a queen. This is why I don’t play blackjack for real.

-Pan Demetrakakes, editor