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Launching at Innovate 2016 – The Shadow Smart Grasping System

Launching at Innovate 2016 – The Shadow Smart Grasping System

Shadow was founded in London in 1987 as a group of robotics enthusiasts who met to try and build useful robots. What started out as a hobby led us to set up a company to develop the world-renowned Dexterous Hand, which is what we’re best known for. Over the years we’ve met many businesses who need more advanced robotics, but weren’t able to find it. This was, in part, because the technology was not sufficiently developed solve their needs. We discovered a huge gap in the market for making truly ‘intelligent’ robotics for industrial applications; this got us thinking that making industrial hands is the next step in our journey.

We have created the Shadow Smart Grasping System, which more than an industrial gripper – it’s a “grasper”, with built-in intelligence. Key features include:

  • A library of different grasps, meaning you can use one Hand to pick up many types of objects, reducing the need for numerous Hands in your factory
  • An in-built vision system so that the Hand can ‘see’ what it’s about to grasp and therefore select the correct grasp for each object
  • Torque sensing on each joint, a revolutionary addition ensuring the hand can make the most accurate and reliable grasp
  • Incredibly robust and reliable, reducing the need for maintenance and repair
  • Easy to programme and use, saving you time and money on training

Our Managing Director, Rich Walker, says “I’m calling it transformative, because I know it will transform the manufacturing industry. When companies have deployed robots in the past, they’ve used grippers that were designed to perform one function, so they get a robot that performs one function. We’ve had 20 years experience building human-like robotic hands, so it was natural for us to go along the lines of ‘how can we make this pick up lots of different things, as a human would be able to?’

“More and more I’ve had people come up to me asking how we can handle grasping in industry. The market is pulling us in that direction, and we think we’ve come up with a revolutionary system that provides a solution to a real-world manufacturing problem.”

Industry 4.0 is on everyone’s lips at the moment. Businesses are now dealing with many different products, all of the time. This is the age of truly smart technology where humans and machines communicate constantly, and with the right tech, you can make industrial production more efficient and astute. Let’s say you own a manufacturing business where you create lots of different products – single use tooling isn’t going to cut it for you, you need machines and robotics that allow for mass customisation. Perhaps your products have custom finishes, you’d need tooling that is fit for purpose and easily adaptable to your needs.

This is where the Smart Grasping System (SGS) comes into it’s own. Industrial grippers are built to pick up one thing, move it, put it down. If you have two different sets of objects, you’ll need two different grippers to perform that task. Our SGS has a library of different grasps, meaning you can use one Hand to pick up many different types of object, which reduces the need for multiple machines in your factory. This also eliminates unnecessary human cost; humans have often been required to ‘babysit’ machines or to assist machines by performing low level tasks (loading and unloading for example). With the SGS, humans can be deployed elsewhere on higher-level tasks as the Smart Grasper Hands will be able to perform the low level tasks itself.

You’ve probably heard of the Amazon Picking Challenge, where the global online retailer Amazon set a challenge for roboticists to create a robot that can pick and stow 12 products from a shelf into a bag. Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? However in reality, it’s an extremely hard task to get a robot to do. Amazon created this challenge as it’s the only area of their warehousing process that isn’t currently mechanised, and they’re looking for a more dynamic way of integrating picking into their processes. Our Smart Grasper has the intelligence to know what it’s grasping as it’s approaching it, and therefore select the correct grasp for the object. If you’re a wholesaler or own a warehouse, you’ll know the issues around a) getting your stock onto the shelves and b) picking stock for delivery. There are some great pieces of kit out there that do good work in order fulfillment, but they don’t tackle the problem of ‘I need a robot that can pick objects of different sizes/shapes without dropping them’. Our SGS system is the holy grail of order fulfillment robotics – it can do it all.

So we set ourselves our own Challenge – we took multiple sets of objects from well known picking challenges (the Amazon Picking Challenge, the YCB Databasethe Southampton Hand Assessment Procedure) and put our Smart Grasper to the test. Our Smart Grasper was able to pick every single object. We thought we’d take it a step further, so we got in touch with our industrial partners and asked them – which objects do you find hard to pick? We reached out to our research partners and asked – what do you need for your work? We combined their answers to create the Smart Grasping System.

The next issue we wanted to tackle was that of professional service robots; we wanted to make something that could go on any next generation robot to make it more useful and to enhance it’s functionality. We used our 20 years experience of developing world class Hands, and thought about how we could apply this knowledge to service robots. Our Smart Grasper is modular, therefore we’ve built it to fit on existing robotic arms/platforms, and can easily fit into your current processes. We’ve taken on this direction due to market pull – our customers came to us with the issue of industrial grasping, and we’ve spent years working on a solution. The Smart Grasping System is what industrial manufacturing has been asking for. Our dexterous hands are great, and perfect for academia and intricate work, but we asked ourselves and our customers – what are the problems that need solving? And ‘grasping’ was a problem that everyone told us about. Not just picking up an object – but grasping it well, ensuring that each grasp is correct for the object that’s being picked, and that the grasp is successful.

There was a time when you needed a PhD to get a robot hand to do something. We don’t think robotics should be an elite thing, so we’ve set out to simplify this. So simple in fact that a 10 year old could use it. Don’t believe us? We found a 10 year old (the son of our sales guy, it’s all legit), and he was able to make the new Hand work. We wanted to take the intelligence out of the engineer controlling the robot, and put it straight into the hand. All of the AI is in the Smart Grasping System.

The key things you need to know about Smart Grasper is that it can sense, interpret, act.

Sense – the Hand can see the object as it approaches it

Interpret – the Hand then figures out what it is about to grasp

Act – the Hand selects the correct grasp for the object and grasps it

We spoke to manufacturers about their experience of graspers and grippers. They said that programming a gripper to do a simple action was fine, but the moment you need a gripper to do a slightly more complex task, you need to buy new grippers to perform it. It goes without saying that to change machinery incurs a huge cost – both financially and timewise. Industry 4.0 has encouraged robots to become more flexible, however the robots are still using fixed tooling. Our system means that your flexible robot can use flexible tooling, performing multiple different tasks using multiple different grasps, and therefore reduces the need to frequently change the grippers you use, ensuring a significant saving in money, as well as time and production costs. We are solving the real-world manufacturing problems by creating intelligent, flexible tooling, which not only creates innovative new manufacturing processes, but moves your business forward in line with Industry 4.0 concepts, saving your business vast amounts of time and money.

Now, imagine your production line uses 50 robots, and those 50 robots all perform one task each. Our Smart Grasper is capable of doing multiple tasks, and therefore will reduce the number of robots you’ll need in your factory. Having so many robots that are performing just one single task is wasteful – how much capital would you estimate is tied up in that machinery? How much floor space has been sacrificed to house them? Eventually, those 50 robots will become victims of obsolescence, and will need to be regularly upgraded. When you examine the production line, you start  to notice these terrible inefficiencies. Now imagine that your 50 robots doing one task were suddenly 20 robots doing 2-3 tasks. Overnight, you’ve freed up over half of the floor space in your factory. You’ve got less robots that need maintenance, less robots that could suffer obsolescence. You’ve got a more efficient production line.

Robotic tooling is created by taking big lumps of steel and turning them into smaller lumps of steel with motors attached. There’s no intelligence involved in that process. Bish, bash, bosh. We’ve designed the Smart Grasping System the other way around. From the ground up, we’ve embedded intelligence into Hand and have designed it to be truly efficient and not wasteful. We’ve taken an Internet of Things approach by putting the intelligence into the hardware. Despite being a ‘smart’ robotic system, this product comes in at a very competitive price. And consider that your RoI is increased even further as you can reuse the Hands for many different projects, so you’re not throwing expensive machinery on the scrap heap once you stop making a particular product. Let’s not forget, it’s not just money that goes into machinery – there’s the cost of training your staff to use each different machine too. If you had less machines, you have less training costs, plus you wouldn’t need to hold stock of many different spare parts, and you’d have just one supplier that could stock your production line, saving you the hassle of dealing with multiple brands.

Most industrial grippers don’t have torque sensors. Here at Shadow, we think that if you want the most flexible and safe robots, then that’s exactly what you need. We’re moving away from a time where robotics were strictly bits of metal clanking around, and moving towards smarter, intelligent technology that understands how it interacts with the world. Which is why we’ve designed the Smart Grasper with this in mind. Torque sensing provides your robot with precision, making accurate grasps with a better hold, increasing the success rate of the grasps, and therefore making for a safer work environment. The SGS has sensors that monitors the torque in the springs of the joints. If you want to apply a particular torque to a finger, you can do that as there are a series of elastic actuators which control it (and you can physically back-drive it too, increasing human interaction safety). No other commercial grippers have this quality.

You wouldn’t want to use our Dexterous Hand for industrial work – that Hand was built for nimble work where you need dexterity and an almost human touch, whereas the Smart Grasper is extremely robust and reliable, and can handle pretty much anything you throw at it (we don’t recommend throwing things at robots though).

There is no third party involved with the Smart Grasping System. It’s all Shadow’s own work. If something were to go wrong, call us. If you wanted to expand on the product, change something, swap something around, call us. Repairs are also really simple with this system because it is modular. We can easily swap and replace parts as needed, you won’t have to take part an entire production line to change a small piece.

Our Smart Grasping System is a universal solution to your manufacturing needs.You’ll require fewer robots, fewer spare parts, less training for staff, less human cost, all resulting in a system that you can install across multiple sites, with an extremely easy user interface and setup. You’ll save money and time, increase efficiency and bring your business in line with smart manufacturing concepts such as Industry 4.0. Our Smart Grasping System represents the very best of British innovation, and we’re so excited to unveil this transformative produce at Innovate 2016.

We’d be happy to visit your production plants and give you an audit on how efficient your factory/warehouse is, and discuss further about how our Smart Grasping System can solve your manufacturing problems. We’re looking for a limited number of manufacturers across different industries to join us as we explore further options to trial the Smart Grasper in situ. If you’d like your business to be amongst the first to trial and evaluate this innovative new Hand, get in touch with us by emailing