Developments in robotics

The printbots are coming

The MoviGo Sharko 10 AMR on the HP stand transporting a reel

Some people were predicting this was going to be an AI Drupa, or an automation Drupa. But most visibly, it was certainly a robot Drupa.

All over the halls were robot arms reaching to grab and place things, some giant ones safely imprisoned in cages, others trusted outside cages as cobots (cooperative robots) with arms reaching around production machines to help the operators. Some, called AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) were on wheels, scurrying around carrying pallets or reels. Most impressively, Konica Minolta was confident enough to allow one called FORXai to roam the aisles of its stand without obvious supervision, weaving around strolling visitors and politely stopping if any got in the way.

Robots have been building cars and other heavy metal since the 1970s and AGV (automated guided vehicle) roll and pallet trucks have been in large printers since the late 1980s. But now they are getting smarter, easier to integrate and, crucially, easier to afford.

Here’s a run through some of the main types of robot for printing applications, with some Drupa examples.

Robot arms were the most common. They tend to be on a fixed base from which they rotate, reach, pick up and place things, though some were on movable bases. Many have interchangeable end tools, such as suction frames for sheets, or finger grippers for stacks.

Less common this time at Drupa were delta type robots, which resemble four-armed spiders hanging from a gantry. They are extremely fast for pick and placement on belts, but they don’t have the reach and versatility of articulated arms.

Picking and placing

Robot arms and deltas can be used to pick up objects, which may be a stack/pile or individual sheets, labels, cards or box lids, and place them precisely somewhere else – typically on a feeder or delivery tray, conveyor belt, cutting table or flatbed print bed.

At Drupa, the French robot developer Recmi Industrie was showing an arm for de-palletising and palletising functions including case packing. CEO Gilles Bodereau explained that placing precisely is relatively easy, but it’s harder to pick from pallets that may not be in the right position, or the stacks are uneven. Recmi uses a camera and then a laser edge finder to identify positions for pickup.

Cobots (collaborative robots) are designed to work alongside human operators, without risk of harming them. They tend to be small and slow moving, with elaborate safety systems to slow or stop them if a human is at risk of getting in the way.

At Drupa, Heidelberg was showing a StackStar C cobot with a small barrier, but this was just to keep the visitors out of the way – in a factory it’s not needed.

Mimaki had a demonstration of an uncaged cobot arm loading and unloading a facing pair of B2 format UJF 7151Plus II flatbed inkjets. It could load blanks onto one bed, then serve the other printer while the job was printing. Afterwards the arm could unload items into stacks on a pallet.

Marc Verbeem, product management supervisor at Mimaki Europe, said that one arm could actually serve three printers, though there wasn’t room to show this on the stand at Drupa. On its booth the system was slowed down to protect visitors. Running normally in high res it could handle 350 sheets per day from two printers, or double that for medium resolutions.

“Our printers understand the open-source MDL robot command language,” Verbeem said. “It means we can add any robot to our printers. The printers signal to the robot when they are ready. It will find the bed jig positions automatically, and you tell it where the stacks go. So far MDL is not integrated into our CFX flatbed cutters, but that would be a next step.”

Duplo had a technical demo of a cobot arm which collected trimmed postcards from a DC-746 multi-finisher, placed them in a mini-jogger, then a paper bander, and finally into a delivery box. “We are showing that Duplo is looking to the future and examining where we could go,” said UK marketing manager Zunaid Rahman “Our ethos is automation and there’s more to that than just the robot stacker at the end.”

Fujifilm had a complete robot-assisted finishing demonstration, starting with pallets of B2 sheets printed on an adjacent Jet Press 750S HSM. An automatic sheet counter ran down the stack edge and lifted the corners so robot ‘fingers’ could get underneath. Then two robot arms acting in synchronisation grasped and lifted opposite corners of each counted set and transferred it to an automated jogger. A carriage rail slid the jogged pile onto the back of a guillotine, where a large floor-standing cobot at the front handled the turns and sorted the stacks onto the airbed’s side area. Another floor-standing arm picked up individual stacks and placed them into a shelf unit.

Konica Minolta's FORXai 'roaming the aisles'


Robotfactory was demonstrating arm systems on the Zünd stand. This is a spin-off interest of Zünd’s Danish distributor, selling exclusively to Zünd users worldwide. It buys in smaller arms from Universal Robots, another Danish company, or larger ones from the Swedish ABB. “We develop the software, the UI, the base and the grippers,” explained Jacob Hansen, CEO.

Information is sent from a Zünd cutter to aid the robot in finding positions. Depending on the size and reach of the arm, it can go at either end of a table to load or unload, or a large one can be fitted at the side to reach both ends, and could serve two tables side by side. Really large beds can be served by an arm that moves along a rail, which might also move stacks between storage zones and the bed.

Epson makes robots, including large ones. However, its small Scara 9X8 was a on packing line demo, using its arm to pick two sizes of on-demand labels off the roll from two Epson ColorWorks printers, and place them onto appropriately sized boxes. This used camera detection for box size, shape and orientation.

Fetching and carrying

Most of the wheeled moving robots at Drupa were AMRs. They have built-in computers and have some freedom of action, rather like self-driving cars. If a person or other object blocks their way, they can stop, steer around it or even plan a different route. They navigate by a variety of means: optical marks on the floor, or sensors such as sonar and lidar, referring to maps in their memories. They’ll also communicate with a central controller to send and receive updates.

In the massive HP hall, its robotics partner company MoviGo Robotics, based in the Netherlands, was demonstrating its Sharko AMRs in two sizes. MoviGo is pronounced ‘Movie-Joe’ and is Esperanto for ‘movement’.

“We partnered with HP and there’s some exclusivity in digital printing,’ said managing director Paul van der Hulst. “However we can work with non-digital installations.”

These little AMRs are deceptively small for their carrying capacity. A Sharko 10 (with 1,000kg capacity) was moving rolls from a storage area to an HP Indigo web press loader. Elsewhere a Sharko 5 (500kg capacity) was moving palettes around a sheetfed Indigo press.

“This is like a big Roomba robot vacuum cleaner,” said van der Hulst. “It maps its environment, detects objects and moves around them. There are sensors and cameras for obstacles and safety.” The robots “opportunistically” go for top-up charges whenever they are idle, so they never usually need to stop work.

MoviGo has been developing these for six years, van der Hulst said. “The robots can work with anything that has an open access path. If it can’t get direct access it can load/unload to an adjacent staging area. It reports to a central controller and is integrated with the HP presses. A press puts out a call to ‘reserve’ future transport slots in the robots’ activities. The intention is to add update facilities, such as for a delay or breakdown, so the system can automatically reschedule. In future we will go upstream to MIS.”

Horizon had a huge stand, including complete lines with printers, finishers and cobots to link them. Most were arm types, but there were two AMR demonstrations. Most impressive was a pallet-carrying AMR that moved in the public visitors’ aisle between a press and a finishing line. An overhead camera with image recognition stopped the AMR if people were in the way. However Horizon staff also politely cleared the audience out of the aisles for the more popular demos.

Jason Seaber, technical sales director at UK distributor IFS, said: “The robots show that Horizon can do the integrations. They mean energy reduction, fewer touch points and so less risk of damage to print.”

Elsewhere, ABB supplied AMRs for the Komori stand, moving sheets from a Lithrone G37P press across the public aisle to the MBO stand and a K80 folder, equipped with its own robot arm. This was supervised by Komori’s KP-Connect Pro controller.

Coming for your job?

This has only been a flavour of the robot demos at Drupa. The typical justification presented for these was to overcome the ‘recruitment problem’ in printing factories. Not a skills shortage, but rather an unskills shortage. Young people don’t want the boring repetitive tasks of manual materials handling, goes the argument, and so robots can be used instead. They don’t get bored, they don’t need rest breaks and they’ll never strike for higher pay. They don’t need health & safety protections either, though equally they’re not self-repairing!

But robots represent yet another step in reducing the industry’s largely unspoken social function as an employer of people of all skill levels. Good or bad? You decide.