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Electronics Production | August 24, 2006

KUKA Unveils Faster, Smaller Four-Axis Robots

Amid a severe downturn in automotive, company delivers a new product family aimed at general industrial users that require simpler, more compact and less expensive robots for pick-and-place, assembly or material handling applications.
KUKA Robotics Corp. today expanded its four-axis robot family with new models that are said to operate at higher speeds and take up less space than their six-axis siblings in pick-and-place, assembly, or material handling applications.

The KUKA KR10 scara robot family includes 600mm and 850mm models that are capable of handling payloads of up to 10kg. The new line's debut follows last month's unveiling of the KUKA KR5, an even more compact version that can extend to 350mm or 550mm and handle up to 5kg loads. Both families, however, are a departure from KUKA's flagship six-axis robots, which are built specifically for automotive applications.

The four-axis scara -- which stands for selective compliant articulated/assembly robot arm -- is aimed at general industry customers, which KUKA defines as anything outside of automotive. The new line operates at slightly faster speeds than the company's six-axis counterparts, but that's not the real draw, KUKA officials said.

"The controller and the software you see on the [smaller] scara robot is the same as you see on the larger robot," noted Kevin Kozuszek, KUKA's marketing manager. KUKA's PC-based controller, which powers the KR10 scara robot family, is more intuitive, he said. "That ease-of-use is what we are seeing smaller companies and the general industry latch on to."

KUKA, like all robot manufacturers, is trying to simplify the way a robot is programmed and maintained in order to find new customer industries and new applications. Much of the need to develop products for new industries stems from the downturn in the automotive sector, which has been the primary market for robot vendors.

The Robotic Industries Association recently reported a significant drop in robot sales for the first half of 2006. The statistics showed that new orders received by North American-based robotics companies fell 38%. Sales in automotive specifically were down by 52%, according to the RIA, while non-automotive industries, which include life sciences, pharmaceutical, and biomedical, accounted for 45% of new orders through June.

"The long-term success of the robotics industry depends upon growth in non-automotive markets," said RIA Executive Vice President Donald Vincent in a statement.

On its own, as well as in conjunction with Microsoft, KUKA has been developing ways for industry to more easily program and deploy robots. And, despite the RIA's statistics, demand is rising, Kozuszek said, noting that it was the company's existing customers who were the driving force behind the introduction of these smaller robots.

"In automotive there are a lot of engineers and people dedicated to the automation side of the business. But a smaller job shop doesn't have the amount of people [needed] in the facility to [assign] a specialist in robotics," he pointed out.

They also don't have the deep pockets needed to buy a large robot whose prices reach into the six-figure range. The KR10 robots, which are available immediately, are more reasonably priced at around $30,000, he pointed out.
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