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The Ins & Outs of End-of-Arm Tooling (EOAT)

May 5, 2021

If you’re interested in automating your food processing facility and integrating robotics, one of the biggest considerations you’ll encounter is end-of-arm tooling. Simply put, end-of-arm tooling (EOAT), i.e., the end effector, is the device at the very end (after the last axis) of a robotic arm. This is the piece designed to interact with the environment and manipulate product.

When a company wants to integrate a robot, choosing the robot and controller can be easy. The EOAT can be the challenge because it’s specific to the application–many times, it requires a custom-built effector.

EOAT Types

EOAT come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Here are two of the most common you’ll find in the food-processing industry:

  • Grippers – These act like “fingers” to clamp on and pick up an object. They come in a huge number of designs–the size and type of material you’re handling will determine which you need. Styles include pincers, fingers and needles and can be soft or rigid. They can be powered electrically, hydraulically or pneumatically (more on that below). Some feature force-tech sensors to help the grippers pick up products better without damaging it. Grippers are great for picking up a wide variety of product, but they’re not as fast as vacuum EOAT.
  • Vacuum cups – As the name denotes, these use suction to hold the product in place to move/manipulate it. A separate tube works to blow off the product at its destination. Vacuum EOAT are generally faster than grippers, but not as versatile. Users can adjust the strength of the vacuum to meet their individual needs, but vacuum cups won’t work with porous or perforated surfaces. Plus, the air lines require regular maintenance and cleaning, especially in environments where food particulates can get sucked into the line.
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Actuators

As mentioned above, actuators that provide power can be electric, hydraulic, pneumatic or vacuum. Each offers its own advantages and disadvantages.

  • Electric
    • More costly
    • More flexibility for moving & positioning parts, finishing applications & welding
    • Requires programming skills or “training” of the EOAT/robot
    • Software provides greater control over movements
    • Can move through many different strokes & positions – great for high-mix environments
  • Hydraulic
    • Not suitable for food due to possible leakage & contamination
    • Extremely strong
    • Potentially high maintenance time, i.e., downtime, & costs
  • Pneumatic
    • Great weight-to-power ratio
    • Low cost
    • Fewer gripper positions, mainly open & closed
  • Vacuum
    • Uses 2 lines, one for suction & one for blowoff
    • Adjustable suction strength
    • Great for flat surfaces
    • Not suitable for porous/perforated surfaces
    • Air lines require regular maintenance

You should note that the power source for the EOAT does not depend on the robot itself. For example, Stäubli robots feature built-in air hoses for vacuum and pneumatic functionality, as well as electric connections. But, you can add a hydraulic hookup if you’d like.

Which EOAT Is Best for You?

EOAT is application specific. Sometimes, you can use one style of EOAT for different products. For example, if you’re palletizing, you can have one end effector that picks up different size boxes. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

In regard to superiority, there is no one EOAT that outstrips the others. As described above, each has its own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the application. If you’re looking for speed, vacuum might be the way to go. For cost effectiveness and basic functionality, go electric. Or, if you’re picking up bigger objects or porous objects, look at pneumatic or hydraulic power.

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So, how do you choose which one is best for you?

That’s where the EnSight Solutions team can apply their expertise to help.

We start by having a conversation with the company. We’ll look at their product and ask a bunch of questions about it.

“Is it in a package or a box? What is the container made of? Are you packing raw or cooked meat? Will it be frozen or at room temperature? Raw, cooked or frozen dough?” And on and on.

That gives us a good starting point.

Then, if we feel like the application needs to be tested, we request a sample to test in our facility. And that is usually the longest part of the process.

Our team can generally program the robot to do its job in 1–2 weeks. But getting the right EOAT can be difficult. The process can involve a lot of trial and error to get the right cups or grippers, the right vacuum setting, the right speed, etc.

To ensure the proper fit and function, EnSight Automations custom-designs and crafts the EOAT using food-grade stainless steel or plastic to fit your company’s specific application. We also try to design our EOAT to allow for quick and easy removable and replacement, in case your application requires you to change out end connectors regularly. In addition, we work directly with industry-leading EOAT makers to procure the best grippers and cups in the right shape and size for you. The result is a top-quality, ready-to-go robot that fits your needs just right.

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