When we think about automation, the robotic arms get all the glory (after all, they are colorful and move around in cool ways). But the hard-working end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) is equally crucial to make the system work, just less showy (think of EOAT as the line, lure, and hook to the robot arm’s rod and reel). So let’s give the humble EOAT some love for all the innovations they’ve brought to manufacturing. EOAT (once commonly called “end effectors”) is at the business end of the robotic arm, connecting the robot to the actual work being done. EOAT may include grippers, vacuum cups, welding torches, force-torque sensors, grinders, and cutters.  Previously just simple gripper fingers for a single task — most often in heavy duty automotive applications — EOAT has made leaps and bounds in complexity and functionality to keep pace with the fast-evolving robot market. Here are highlights of the newest EOAT technology: Standard versatility The original EOAT of the 1960s were purpose-built for a single application. Today, standard, off-the-shelf EOAT is more flexible to handle a wider range of applications. These standard solutions are less expensive and easier to deploy than custom options because they often come ready to plug and play. This quick changeover is very appealing to smaller shops that switch lines daily and weekly. Also, EOAT is getting a lot smarter, with integrated sensing, vision technology, and artificial intelligence. “High production shops can take their time to engineer an optimized solution for a particular application,” Thomas Reek, vice president of sales - automation at SCHUNK and avid disc golfer, says, “But shops that are constantly changing don’t have time for the up-front engineering time. They need to switch fast to be profitable, so tooling needs to be adaptable for many jobs.” A simpler solution ATI Industrial Automation recently introduced the CGV-900 Axially Compliant Finishing Tool for grinding and finishing applications. Pneumatic pistons in the tool provide a constant force to make contact with the work surface. This allows the tool to automatically adjust the angle and pressure to accommodate slight variations in the parts without using a vision system. The resulting parts are consistently compliant to their required specs. ATI says the CGV-900 is ideal for automotive spot-welding cleanup, metal fabrication, and foundry applications, especially small- and medium-sized companies with high mix/low volume. “Enterprises without their own automation teams don’t have the capital or labor to add a complex vision system that costs $50,000, and it requires a lot of programming and maintenance,” says Tim Burns, senior application engineer for Material Removal Products at ATI. “They need a quicker return on investment to stay competitive, so the CGV-900 provides a simpler solution for 1/6th the cost. Plus, it’s lighter and smaller than traditional EOAT grinders, so it’s easier for the robot to manipulate it.” It’s electric OnRobot is seeing a growth in the use of electric tooling versus traditional pneumatic ones, particularly with first-time robot users.  “To change over to a new part, pneumatic grippers must be replaced, which takes time and money,” says Kristian Hulgard, general manager – Americas at OnRobot. “Electric tools are simpler and less expensive to redeploy with a robotic arm for different tasks because it just requires a change in software settings for a single tool.” First-time robot user Tomenson Machine Works, a manufacturer of precision hydraulic manifolds in West Chicago, uses an OnRobot RG6 gripper on a collaborative robot for pin stamping and engraving. The electric gripper is adaptive to switch between the shop’s wide range of parts with simple software settings, avoiding time-consuming changeovers and allowing workers to be relocated on parts with complex processes and longer cycles. With these new capabilities, the company is more comfortable bidding on smaller jobs and plans to expand its automation for machine tending, deburring, and packaging. Automated changeover Kurt Manufacturing, well known for its workholding products since the 1950s, entered the EOAT market last year with the introduction of its pneumatic RV grippers at IMTS 2022. The two-finger parallel gripper features a first-of-its-kind design with automated finger changes on a single gripper body. The adaptable gripper uses pull studs for fast finger changes to accommodate different applications without operator intervention. Integrated electronics with sensors in the gripper ensure the fingers are locked in place. To expand its offering, the company is currently developing a three-finger model and a smaller version of the RV36 two-finger parallel gripper for smaller robots and part applications. “Our customers are exploring a wider range of automation options that require grippers that sense force and part presence for lights-out manufacturing applications,” says Chuck Milam, industrial products sales manager for Kurt. “Sensors built into the gripper can help time out production if a part isn't picked properly or a finger change malfunctions, saving on machine downtime and wasted materials.”    Large companies are still the biggest consumers of EOAT today, but we can expect smaller shops to grow quickly as robots become cheaper and easier to use.  So EOAT makers are finding ways to meet a wide variety of needs in capabilities, price, and complexity.  Plus, watch for 3D printing to play a bigger role as manufacturers print their own custom EOAT. Although EOAT is only about 10% of the total cost of a robotic system, they deserve respect as the essential, front-line workers in the automation world. For more information on automation trends and the advanced technology that drives them, search IMTS 2024 exhibitors here. 
The humble end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) is where the work happens in robotics, but it often doesn’t get the attention like the flashier robot arm. In reality, EOAT technology is advancing alongside the rest of the system to meet the evolving needs of the robot market.