March 1992

NeXT factory gets new robots

by Clair Whitmer

Redwood City, CA: Striving to set its own sterling example for mission-critical custom applications, the NeXT factory-automation group is implementing the third phase of a new robotics technology controlled by the NeXT workstation.

Called Sawyer motor robotics, the equipment looks radically different from the bulky, awkward metal arms of conventional robots. The robotic manipulators that do the work are suspended by a magnet from a metal platen. The magnet exerts enough attraction to suspend the manipulator but doesn't actually touch it, so that the manipulator sits on a thin layer of air, appearing to float. The magnetic "forcer" is what directs the manipulator's movements.

The robots are small and light, and their controllers are magnetic rather than mechanical. "You can have multiple units coexisting in the same workplace, zipping around," said Kim Spitznagel, NeXT's director of manufacturing engineering and production.

Each manipulator has a dedicated controller with an RS-232 interface to a NeXT workstation. Users direct the robot through a NeXT-developed computer-integrated manufacturing application.

Though comparable in speed to other robot technologies, the Sawyer robot components are more mobile and move without friction. This gives them an accuracy "an order of magnitude" better than their mechanical alternatives, with a defect rate lower by 30 to 50 percent, according to Spitznagel. They are also cheaper because the same modular parts can be used for different functions, and safer because there are no heavy parts that can fall.

NeXT is one of the first companies to go beyond the tire-kicking stage with the Sawyer robots, having already started using them last year. "Steve [Jobs] really gets off on robotics technology," said Spitznagel.

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