Schmalz’ Needle Gripper Technology for Porous Materials

August 30, 2022 by Seth Price

​​​​​​​Schmalz has released their new “needle gripper” used as an alternative to vacuum grippers in materials handling for natural and porous materials such as particle board. 

When moving materials from one place to another, there are several ways to grip the products. Some machines use a set of robotic hands that must close around the part without damaging it. Other machines will use a set of vacuum grips. The robotic hands must be programmed for each part they handle, which can be cumbersome in a facility where a variety of stock keeping units are used, or in applications where natural (and often irregular) parts are handled. 

Vacuum grips work in some applications, but struggle with natural materials and materials with small pores that don't allow a vacuum to be drawn on them.


Schmalz four-module pneumatic needle gripper

Schmalz’ four-module system has 80 individual needles for lifting. Image used courtesy of Schmalz


Schmalz has developed a new solution to this dilemma: the needle gripper. The needle gripper has multiple syringes that gently stick into the material with a vacuum that is drawn on each syringe. The material is held in place due to both the vacuum and needles poking into the surface.

Schmalz’s needle grippers are designed for use with their JumboErgo product line. 


What is a  Needle Gripper?

A needle gripper mounts on a robotic arm and can be used to pick up objects. The controller pushes the needles into the surface of the object to be moved and then draws a vacuum. Between the small vacuum and the physical insertion of the needles, the object stays attached to the needles during movement. Once the object has been moved, the vacuum is broken and the needles withdrawn.

Schmalz vacuum layer gripper

Schmalz’ vacuum layer gripping system (shown above) is not equipped to effectively move porous materials like a needle gripper is. Image used courtesy of Schmalz


Applications of Needle Grippers

Needle grippers can be used to pick up flat or porous objects, such as particle board, foam panels, large filters, and other such items. In these cases, a standard vacuum gripper cannot maintain a vacuum, as air moves through the interconnected pores and releases the vacuum. Also, such objects are often soft or subject to damage by clamp-type robotic grippers.

While the needle grippers do puncture the surface of the material, the materials used are often full of holes or will likely end up in a painted product so that the tiny holes made by the needle do not detract from the object’s structural integrity or aesthetics. 

Schmalz needle gripper technology can lift up to 100 kg

Four modules are capable of lifting 100 kg, as shown in this image. Image used courtesy of Schmalz


Schmalz' Stabbing Solution

Schmalz has designed their needle grippers with large, flat objects in mind, such as pieces of particle board or plywood, that cannot be moved easily with other methods. The needles approach the material at an angle optimized for weight-carrying capacity, each module lifting up to 25 kg. For heavier objects, more modules can be used in tandem, with the maximum capacity of 100 kg (four modules).

The modules are outfitted with a number of safety sensors that determine whether the needles are over the load. This prevents workers from being stuck with the needles instead of the material to be moved. The operator of the gripper must confirm safe conditions on the control screen before it will allow the needles to be deployed.


Vacuum Automation

Schmalz develops vacuum materials handling solutions for improving product quality and worker ergonomics. Founded in 1910, Schmalz pivoted from making razors and airport equipment to vacuum handlers and automation equipment in the 1980s. Their grippers, vacuum generators, clamps, and other equipment have been used in a variety of industries.