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Mass High Tech

Robotic hand developer looks to grab auto market

By Judy Stringer

William Townsend was chaperoning his multi-digit robotic hand to Japan in order to install the recently developed tool himself at a buyer's facility. After having his carry-on package inspected by a customs agent at JFK Airport in New York, Townsend started towards the door that led to the airplane. The agent called after him, "Son, you are going out the wrong door," indicating that Townsend should be headed toward the exit, not the airplane.

"I told him that I was taking it to Japan and he looked at me like, 'You have got to be kidding me,'" said Townsend, "He reacted like I had a shovel full of snow and was headed to Alaska."

Townsend and the company he founded, Barrett Technology Inc. in Cambridge, have developed the first multi-digit robotic hand capable of efficiently changing tasks and light enough to fit on the end of a robotic arm. While the product is still in the developmental stage and the current market forecasts are uncertain, Townsend is passionate about seeing the product through to commercialization.

"It may not be much of a market and we have a long way to go, but we still have the only one and that's something," said Townsend.

Licensing technologies from two universities in the early 90's and determined to start a robotics company, Townsend began the company first as part of Barrett Design, a communications and design technology firm later renamed Barrett Communications that he co-founded with his wife, Julie Townsend. Barrett Technologies later split off as a separate company and incorporated in 1990.

The initial technology was a robotic arm and wrist licensed from MIT, which he had helped develop while getting his master's degree. The arm was different from conventional robotic components because it was very fast and had the ability to use the side of its arms for movements such as hugging or nudging. Barrett Technologies then set out to complete the arm, getting a license for a three-digit hand from the University of Pennsylvania.

"I started out thinking this technology would set the universe on fire, and soon realized that I had a lot to learn about markets," he said. "We went to Ford and said 'What is it that you need?' and found the one thing that was really missing was the ability for simple robotic grippers to do several tasks where they pick things up using different grips."

That set Townsend on course to design a robotic arm that could handle multiple tasks on an automated assembly line - what has now become a five-year, time-consuming, cash-intensive project. Keeping his head above the water in the lean years with several federal research grants, Barrett Technologies was eventually rescued with funds from the success of Barrett Communications. Now, the hand is in reliability testing - vigorous movement trials that must be run over and over again to determine how many tasks the hand can preform before breaking down - and the company has sold 12 research prototypes.

"It's neat that we have several hands out there," said Townsend, "I read a pamphlet about a company in Italy the other day that said they were making tactile sensors for the BarrettHand."

The BarrettHand is a three-digit hand that has two opposing fingers each capable of 180 degrees of movement. The three digits can curl together in a fist and grip objects by applying pressure. Although multi-fingered hands are not new, one that can actually go on the end of a robotic arm is a recent development. Conventional multi-digit hands weigh between 30 pounds to 40 pounds, making them impractical to put on an arm.

Meanwhile, the two-pronged grippers that are currently used on assembly lines can only do one task at a time and have to be retrofitted with tools every time a new task is performed. Barrett's hand, in comparison, weighs only 2.5 pounds and can switch tasks very quickly, having the operational software actually built into the hand.

The question that Townsend has to be able to answer before getting the product to market is how long the hand can last on an assembly line. Reliability testing began a week ago and initially the hand was completing 13,000 cycles before breaking down. Every cycle includes a 180-degree rotation by the opposing fingers, curling of the digits into a fist and reopening. Barrett will get the hand up to the hundreds of thousands of cycles before launching the product and will be able to widen the market potential if it is able to get the hand to complete cycles in the millions.

"Companies that use automation want to know how reliable the product will be. It's not that they mind conducting routine maintenance, but they want to know how often they will have to do it," he said. "So our goal is to get enough testing done to have accurate statistics about the hand's reliability."

The BarrettHand, which runs for about $30,000 now, is much more expensive than conventional grippers that only cost several thousand dollars. However, a study done at Ford found that Barrett's device would be reasonable when you take into account all the tools that must be purchased in order to keep switching tasks with less flexible simple grippers. In fact, that study found that each gripper used cost the company between $30,000 to $50,000 in extra tools.

We have since learned that while robots are better than people in some aspects (they feel no pain and are fast number crunchers), humans are better than robots in other areas, such as intuitive reasoning and judgment.

That news means that Barrett may soon find itself over the marketing hump. Townsend, who reports that the robotics industry is a $1 billion market, growing between 25 percent to 30 percent since 1990, said a large robotic tool maker has repeatedly contacted him about the hand. "They know that it is just a matter of time before automakers want to buy a more flexible product, instead of having companies push more tool changers on them."

Publish Date: March, 1997

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Mass High Tech 1998.

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