Holiday gift ideas for the robots (and engineers) in your life

Dec. 12, 2014

From end effectors and software to machine simulation, it's no small wonder what you can find when no one is looking

If I were a robot, I would totally work in one of those 24/7 autonomous facilities. Heck, I’d even work third shift to avoid those surprise visits from management. I would take extra-long lunches because no one would be there to boss me around or hassle me. It’s not that I would be goofing off with those slacker robots who huddle in the supply room, smoking ecigarettes and chugging cans of discounted, high-viscosity hydraulic fluids. That’s not my style. I just prefer the freedom and the opportunity to be creative on my own terms. I’d spend my free time redesigning the factory floor to optimize automation and production, as well as buying useful gifts for my robot friends. Not the ones who left the factory floor for hazardous-duty pay. I hope they’re enjoying their new lives, exploring the surface of Mars or inspecting nuclear-reactor housings or handling dangerous chemicals or building bridges 1,000 ft in the air or washing the windows on skyscraper office buildings or cleaning the bathrooms of their human masters. They can have those dangerous jobs. They chose to leave the safety of the plant floor. They made up their own minds to leave. They’re dead to me now.

No, I won’t be sending a shiny new end effector to any of them on their birthdays. But my autonomous-factory co-workers are different. We have a connection. We communicate to each other in an unspoken language. Sometimes, we’re so in sync, it feels like we’re part of the same entity. And, as much as I love my independence, there are times when it’s very fulfilling to be part of a group dedicated to the greater good.

And for these colleagues — these friends — I would gladly spend my entire paycheck lavishing them with gifts. And now I can do it without even leaving the comfort and cleanliness of the factory. I can just take out my cell phone and visit the app store for robots. On (“caps” rhymes with “apps,” and it’s short for capabilities), I can buy hardware, software and all kinds of accessories. It used to be hard to buy for my robotic friends — not so much because they were picky or temperamental, but more because they were large and complex and part of an expensive comprehensive solution that could only be upgraded or accessorized by a machine builder or system integrator. But that type of thinking is so 5 μs ago. These days, the machinist who was displaced by my robotic friend is now often doing the setup and programming.

 “We’re seeing a wave of demand in smaller companies that never before used robots,” says Esben Oestergaard, CTO of Universal Robots ( “We want to make it easier to go from idea to finished installation by providing a shortcut to proven combinations of robots and accessories based on the good experiences of other users. Many robot applications around the world actually look a lot like each other, but there is not a collective place where you can go and find out where for instance to buy a protective sleeve for a robotic arm.”

The first 43 caps — workbenches, vision solutions, cables, jaws and grippers — have been proven through trial integration testing and are on the platform already. “URCaps can save weeks and months into the process from concept to operation of the robot in production,” says Oestergaard. “If a robot installation becomes a problem, it can be complicated to determine what the source is. URCaps allows you to choose a proven combination of robot grippers or other accessories from the beginning to prevent delays and aggravation.”

Holiday shopping for my preprogrammed friends has never been easier. Being able to test or simulate configurations is a big help. And, once I’d finished with all of the robots on my “nice” list, I’d settle down for a little “me time” in my real-time automation sandbox to simulate and build systems that I can integrate with controls and technology through I/O drivers. Factory I/O from Real Games ( comes with a library of completely functional parts that represent common industrial equipment that integrates with sensors, actuators and controls. It’s like Minecraft for robots, or human engineers. Anything, from individual components to entire systems, can be simulated and run in Factory I/O. Its I/O points, represented by tags, allow you to interface with external technology.

When a part is added to a Factory I/O scene, the tags are generated automatically. I/O drivers provide access to the tags, which, in some instances, can be mapped in the interface. I/O drivers are currently available from Advantech, Automgen, MHJ, Modbus and Siemens. So far, I’ve only taken it for a test drive (, but I’ll have a chance to work with the full version before the end of the year, when I take all those robot vacation days I’ve been stockpiling.