By Henrik Christiansen, 
Graphic Robotics

The central challenge in handling bigger sheets in the printing industry is to get a kind of structure into the sheets. This is basically done by the operator by gripping the sheets in two of their sides or corners. This can, for obvious reasons, not be done with a single-arm robot without an extremely complicated gripper tool, which, at the end of the day, still has difficulties in handling the task. If one, at the other hand, could dispose over a dual-arm robot, it would be much easier to copy the operator’s sheet handling pattern with a robot.

When I, for the first time, saw Yaskawa’s dual-arm Motoman robots, I immediately started to consider, if such a robot could be used for sheet handling. So I contacted Yaskawa.

Yaskawa and the printing industry

Yaskawa was very open minded and stated nearly immediately that their dual-arm Motoman robots were developed for specific tasks for their biggest customer, Toyota, but that there, in their opinion, only was a quite limited potential for their dual-arm Motoman robots within the auto industry – which is the life-blood industry for all robot manufacturers.

I showed Yaskawa some videos about manual sheet handling in the printing industry, and Yaskawa immediately concluded that here was really a new industry with huge possibilities to exploit the unique features of their dual-arm robots. Yaskawa got so convinced about the potential possibilities within the printing industry that they, in spite of all conventional robot-thinking, decided to finance the development of Yaskawa Levanto – and, as one says, the rest is history.

The Danish Technological Institute and the sub-contractors

Yaskawa is a robot manufacturer, but not a developer of robotic applications, so other partners had to be introduced.

The Danish Technological Institute, who is one of Europe’s leading developers of sophisticated robot applications, were contacted and agreed to supervise the development of the required programming and hardware to develop Yaskawa Levanto. The Danish Technological Institute also arranged contacts to a network of skilled robotic subcontractors to develop and manufacture the various parts and programs in Yaskawa Levanto.

Stibographic – Scandinavia’s biggest commercial printer partners the project

It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a good robotic application without a cooperation with a skilled and cooperative end-user.

Stibographic, being both a very big and very progressive printer, immediately saw the possibilities in a robot cell, which eliminates all heavy, unhealthy and boring manual lifts and at the same time increases both the production capacity and the productivity of the operators, so Stibographic agreed to participate in the development project of Yaskawa Levanto. Stibographic’s input has been fundamental in creating the highly productive Yaskawa Levanto, and their input resulted in both the ream-turning feature and the conveyor feeding of the system, as well as “no marking” grippers and Yaskawa Levanto’s high speed.

Yaskawa Levanto - a unique co-worker robot cell

One of the standard definitions of a robot is that it is pre-programmable. With the exponential increase in computer capacity (robot brain) it is possible to make modern robots more and more flexible, but even the most advanced robot brain cannot be pre-programmed to handle all the possible jobs within the printing industry, because the new jobs are unknown until they are made – which makes pre-programming impossible.

The solution to this challenge was to develop Yaskawa’s Cockpit HMI touch-screen, where several of the central job parameters can be adjusted and controlled dynamically by the operator on the run. With Yaskawa Levanto, the operator can adjust the sheet-twisting angle, ream thickness, robot speed and a lot of other features from the Cockpit touch-screen, and this makes Yaskawa Levanto one of the world’s first industrial co-worker robot cells, where the operator profits from the robot’s strength and consistent lifting capacity, while the robot cell profits from the operator’s skills and experiences.

It is beyond any doubt that the robotic future belongs to co-worker robots and robot cells, because of the continuing exponential growth of the robotic brain, which makes robots capable of handling far more complex and individual tasks – which implies that robots must have a much closer cooperation with human operators – instead of substituting them. This also indicates that because of the complexity of the printing industry’s typical handling jobs, its robotization process has just only started with the appearance of a co-worker robot like Yaskawa Levanto.

Graphic Robotics

As Yaskawa is a manufacturer of robots, not robot cells, Yaskawa encouraged the partners, who had participated in developing Yaskawa Levanto, to establish a new company, which, in close cooperation with Yaskawa, can manufacture, market and support Yaskawa Levanto internationally, as well as develop new, sophisticated Yaskawa robot applications for the printing industry – and Graphic Robotics was born.

We learned that sheets of paper are extremely difficult to handle. One thing is how robots behave. Another thing is to handle flexible materials like paper. The engineers Bo, Kaj Verner and I have, in close cooperation with Stibographic tested and re-tested how to grip, separate and move reams of sheets – and in the end we succeeded in fulfilling not only Stibographic’s, but also our own ambitious wishes.