Sticky fingers: Novel robotic grippers expand role in fulfillment

These cool gecko-inspired grippers show how the best innovations don't add complexity, but eliminate it.

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Robots with gecko-inspired hands are becoming more important during the rise of on-demand-everything. That's prompting a leader in robotic end-of-arm tooling to expand its lineup of the biologically-inspired gripper pads for robots that work in various industries, including fulfillment and logistics.

We've written about OnRobot's Gecko Gripper before. It caused a stir in the admittedly niche community of robotic end effector enthusiasts when it migrated from cool science experiment to commercial availability last year.

The company's gripper uses millions of "micro-scaled fibrillar stalks" to stick to smooth surfaces using van der Waals forces, which is the mechanism geckos use to climb. The technology was first developed with space in mind and grew out of a Stanford research project that inspired work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. NASA was exploring van der Waals forces as an effective way to capture orbiting satellites for salvage or repair. Suction cups and vacuum grippers aren't effective in space, and traditional robotic end effectors can push objects away in zero gravity.

But the Gecko Gripper quickly captured attention outside the space community as a possible pick-and-place tool for robots. Vacuums aren't particularly effective on many kind of objects, including those with perforations that would prevent a vacuum seal. Adhesive solutions leave residue on products and packaging, which isn't ideal. Robotic hands can physically grip objects, but the massive variability of SKUs seen in environments like fulfillment centers, for example, turn the challenge of perfecting a robotic grip into a massive headache spanning  fields such as AI, robotics, and machine vision and learning.

OnRobot's Gecko no-mark adhesive gripper seemed like a grippy solution to a sticky situation, and the company's success with its grippers has reinforced the market need for this sort of product. Last year OnRobot won silver at the Edison Awards Gala, which came on the heels of the Gecko Gripper winning the Robotics Award at the Hannover Messe in Germany.

Not surprisingly, the company's lineup is expanding with a special focus on applications with smaller footprints and lower payloads. 

"Our unique Gecko technology automates processes that no other gripper can accomplish, and now it's available in a compact, flexible format that offers our customers even more options," said Enrico Krog Iversen, CEO of OnRobot. "This is a true plug-and-play gripper that fulfills our promise of a full range of easy, cost-effective, flexible robotic tooling that lets customers focus on their application rather than the robot."

It's a good reminder that not some of the best technological innovations don't add complexity but reduce it.