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A gripping story

piSOFTGRIP® vacuum-driven soft gripping tool

All stories have a beginning. The story of piSOFTGRIP® started with passion – Piab’s passion for innovation and for solving challenging problems through the development of automation products that make life easier for our customers. The vacuum-driven soft gripping tool piSOFTGRIP® is precisely such a product.

From speaking with customers, we knew they were looking for gripping tools with as delicate a touch as a human hand in order to automate handling procedures for sensitive objects of odd shapes or unusual surfaces.

The human hand has been at the centre of intense research and development within robotics since the field’s infancy. Huge efforts have been spent on making robotic hands that imitate the human hand, copying its dexterity and complexity. But with complexity comes great expense.  

Instead of trying to copy the human hand, Piab’s developers realised they had to come up with an affordable substitute that would work in real industrial settings. And as usual, they delivered! piSOFTGRIP® is a unique and cost-effective solution – a truly innovative gripping tool without competition on the market.

The three-fingered gripper incorporates a vacuum cavity that enables the gripping force to be adjusted and controlled by the applied vacuum level. The first version – because all innovations have to start somewhere – can grip objects with a diameter of up to 50 mm.

This proved to be the perfect size for showing off the fruits of their passionate labour – for their first demonstration Piab’s developers chose to grip a passionfruit! Unfortunately passionfruit are not very colourful so we moved on to using lime, lemons, tomatoes interspersed by delicate bearings and test tubes of colourful content in filmed or live demonstrations.

Less colourful, but very fragile, unwrapped hollow chocolate eggs have also been used to demonstrate the virtues and versatility of piSOFTGRIP®. Made in detectable silicone approved for direct contact with food, the vacuum gripper can be used to automate the handling of not just seasonally festive chocolate eggs, but all sorts of fresh, unpackaged and delicate food items, without the risk of crushing.

Enabling the automation of as yet unautomated procedures, piSOFTGRIP® has generated a lot of interest at trade shows and among our customers. Much of the positive feedback stems from the fact that piSOFTGRIP® is a user-friendly and intuitive solution that is easy to control and install. It uses the same fittings as Piab’s piGRIP® suction cups, and an optional stainless steel fitting offers wash-down provision to assist cleaning.

In addition to its low cost it is also lightweight, which means that when fitted to a robot arm it adds very little extra weight. Fitted to Piab’s end-of-arm vacuum tool piCOBOT®, the soft gripping piSOFTGRIP® offers the beginning of an entirely new chapter of automated manufacture.

However, our demonstrations have also sparked off conversations about what else the technology could be used for – if only it were available in different sizes! Some have expressed a desire to use it for picking the tiniest of fragile objects, whereas others are excited about the possibility to solve a need for getting a soft grip on larger difficult to handle objects.

Encouraged by these discussions, our developers have already started to design larger and smaller versions of piSOFTGRIP®, with the ultimate aim of offering a range of different sizes of soft vacuum grippers. There we are - a cliff-hanger ending – so, stay tuned for the continuation of Piab’s gripping story!

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