Putting 'static cling' to use
You’ve seen the commercials for washday products that eliminate static cling. Ironically, the principle behind it gives an innovative robotic gripper a light, gentle touch that doesn’t bruise food items.
Grabit Inc. was created in 2011 by Co-founder and CEO Harsha Prahlad and Co-founder and Advisor Charlie Duncheon. Prahlad has pioneered a variety of electroadhesion applications in the industrial, consumer and service sectors, and led the innovation team that created electroadhesion while working at SRI International. Duncheon has more than 25 years of senior management experience in high-tech and industrial robotics, and has held executive roles at some of the leading robotics companies in Silicon Valley.
Grabit’s electroadhesion gripper technology is flexible, conforming to the shape of the objects it picks up. Since it uses no vacuum or compressed air, it’s a silent worker; the only noise you hear is the robot’s propulsion system. Since it uses very little energy (just a couple of watts), the device will not break the bank, compared to compressed air usage or vacuum pump maintenance.
While this technology may seem “bleeding edge,” there are several potential applications in the food and beverage industry. We asked Harsha Prahlad what’s possible, what’s already been tested and where the technology can go in the future.
FE: Tell us a little about your background.
Harsha Prahlad: I completed my graduate studies in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland. Then, I worked at SRI International for 10 years, where I led the advanced components group in the robotics program within the engineering R&D division.
During 10 years of research, the group published numerous research papers and was granted more than 25 US and international patents related to electroadhesion. An additional 30 patents are awaiting approval.
FE: How and when did you find that electroadhesion could be put to practical use?
Prahlad: Grabit’s electroadhesion technology was developed and patented within the robotics program at SRI in the early 2000s. The original concept for “flexible” electrostatics was initiated at SRI, and we created different prototypes including wall-climbing robots using the technology. Grabit was founded in 2011, and we received funding in 2013 to build an engineering team to commercialize electroadhesion products for material handling. Grabit’s first production grippers were installed in early 2014.
FE: Had you always thought of electroadhesion as a robotic gripper technology?
Prahlad: In 2011, Charlie Duncheon and I joined forces. Based on Charlie’s industry expertise and my knowledge of electroadhesion, we realized there was a huge market opportunity for a more flexible platform for robotic grippers and conveying systems in the manufacturing and warehouse automation industries. Through customer engagements, the technology has been validated in several applications, and we now have installations throughout the world.
FE: What are some practical applications for the food and beverage industry?
Prahlad: Conventional robotics and automation markets have been heavily customized and limited by a lack of low-cost, flexible material handling because of a series of compounded technical challenges. For instance, when an item is shipped, it must be handled separately several times. This individual part handling, called “each picking,” requires an army of workers to fulfill orders day after day, dealing with millions of different product sizes, shapes and weights.
Specifically related to food handling, Grabit has worked directly with food packaging customers and demonstrated that electroadhesion offers less bruising when handling unwrapped foods such as apples and tomatoes. As consumers demand more package options, these products will be handled multiple times, and a gripper with a “softer touch” will be essential for automation to be successful.
FE: In a nutshell, how does the technology work?
Prahlad: Grabit’s electroadhesion technology enables the creation and control of static cling. Electrostatic attraction occurs in everyday life—from rubbing a balloon on a sweater that sticks to a wall to pulling clothes from a dryer that are stuck together. Grabit’s electroadhesion gripper takes advantage of this concept by using an embedded electrode pattern that creates a local electrostatic field when voltage is applied. This field creates an electrostatic force with opposite charges on the surface that allows the pickup of delicate and difficult-to-grasp items.
FE: How safe is the voltage/current the device uses?
Prahlad: People often relate high voltage levels to safety concerns, but actually, high current is the real concern. Electroadhesion is created with very low current in the milliamp and microamp levels that are barely perceptible. We have designed Grabit’s products to protect operators from even these small currents.
FE: How does its energy usage compare to vacuum or compressed air-powered grippers?
Prahlad: Grabit’s electroadhesion technology operates at three orders of magnitude less power than vacuum equipment. Or, put another way, the amount of energy required to run a large robotic vacuum gripper system for one week could power a Grabit gripper for over five years. So, large manufacturing and logistics companies focused on sustainability and energy conservation have the potential to save a tremendous amount of energy and reduce the maintenance headaches of traditional gripper technology.
FE: Are any food and beverage processors using or experimenting with this technology?
Prahlad: We are working with a number of e-commerce companies, as well as food and beverage companies, to validate the technology. We have shown that electroadhesion can offer a more flexible each pick handling solution, compared to what exists today, and offers the ability to increase the velocity of cases and boxes moving throughout the warehouse to increase efficiency and save floor space.
FE: Since the device uses so little energy, are there potential mobile applications in the food and beverage industry?
Prahlad: This is a great question because there is a strong demand for mobile robotic systems in e-commerce facilities and distribution centers. Conventional part handling technology requires carrying compressed air or vacuum generators on the mobile system, adding weight and consuming critical battery life. Because Grabit’s technology is fully electrical, heavy vacuum equipment or compressed air units are not needed on the mobile platform, reducing the weight and size of the system, decreasing energy consumption and extending battery life.
FE: What is the future of Grabit’s electroadhesion technology?
Prahlad: Electroadhesion technology offers the ability to develop a number of unique material handling solutions. Electro-Traction conveyors, e-commerce each picking and box, case and tote handling [systems] are some of the products that are under development in direct partnerships with customers. v
For more information, visit www.grabitinc.com.