What is an elbow in a robotic arm?

July 9, 2024
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The crucial role of the robot elbow

The elbow joint is a key component that gives robotic arms far-reaching skill and versatility

It allows the arm to bend, providing an extra degree of freedom — ideal for precise movements. 

Function of the elbow joint in a robotic arm

Just like our elbows allow us to bend and extend our arms, robotic elbows give these mechanical appendages a newfound flexibility

Without an elbow joint, a robotic arm would be limited to linear motions — not exactly ideal for complex jobs. 

But with an elbow, the arm can reach around obstacles, access tight spaces, and handle objects from multiple angles.

Types of elbow joints in robotic arms

Robot elbows have two different types of joints: Rotary and revolute, plus a hybrid mix of both. 

Let’s get into more detail: 

Rotary joints

You're probably familiar with rotary joints from everyday objects like door hinges or scissor mechanisms. 

In robotic arms, a rotary elbow joint allows the lower arm to rotate around its own axis. This rotation provides a major degree of freedom for precisely positioning the end-effector

Some rotary elbow joints have a limited range of motion, while others can spin continuously in either direction. The range depends on the job to do and the work envelope. 

Revolute joints 

A revolute (or "revolving") elbow joint works like a human elbow. It allows angular motion between the upper and lower arm segments within a limited range.

Revolute joints are typically more skilled, with more orientation capabilities, can lift more, and can mimic natural motion — which allows for intuitive programming. 

However, their complexity means revolute elbows require robust mechanical design and sealing against dust/debris. 

Some advanced robotic arms combine rotary and revolute joints into a hybrid elbow design. This maximizes flexibility while allowing for a compact form. 

Applications of robotic arms with elbow joints

Robotic arms with robot elbows are a mainstay of several industries.

In manufacturing:

  • Optimizing assembly: These arms are pros at repetitive tasks like welding, painting, and screwing, boosting productivity and ensuring consistent quality.
  • Improving safety: They effortlessly handle heavy objects, reducing the risk of workplace injuries and increasing efficiency in tasks like palletizing and packaging.
  • More precision: With their agile movements, these arms are fantastic at delicate tasks like placing components on circuit boards or assembling intricate medical devices.

Beyond the factory floor: 

  • Helping healthcare: Robotic arms help surgeons in minimally invasive procedures, which improves precision and reduces patient recovery times.
  • Adding a modern touch to food service: Some restaurants use robotic arms to prepare food, from flipping burgers to decorating cakes, adding a touch of high-tech flair to the dining experience.
  • Pushing the boundaries of space exploration: Robotic arms have played a vital role in space exploration, manipulating objects in zero gravity and conducting experiments beyond Earth.
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Advantages of having an elbow in a robotic arm

Robot elbows bring quite a few advantages that open up more skill, flexibility, and productivity. 

Let’s take a look: 

  • They can do more. This extra flexibility and dexterity make the arm far more versatile for a wide variety of applications, from simple pick-and-place tasks to intricate assembly or even healthcare roles.
  • Limber and flexible. An elbow enables the end-effector (gripper, tool, etc.) to reach around obstructions and into tight spaces that a rigid, straight arm couldn't access. This makes elbowed robot arms ideal for operating in confined areas like machine maintenance, or for maneuvering around objects on a crowded factory floor.
  • Smaller footprint, safer operations. With their bending capability, robot arms with elbow joints can be mounted closer to work areas while still maintaining a full range of motion. This reduces the arm's footprint and minimizes the risks of colliding with nearby humans or equipment.
  • Greater control. By allowing more natural, human-like arm motions, elbow joints enhance the control and positioning accuracy of robotic arms. This increased precision is essential for delicate tasks like electronics assembly or handling fragile objects.
  • Power and cost savings. Thanks to this skillset, robot elbows allow tasks to be completed with smaller, lighter robot models that consume less energy. Their compact design also reduces material costs compared to larger, stiffer-armed robots for equivalent workspaces.

Challenges in designing and maintaining elbow joints

You'd think adding an elbow joint to a robotic arm would be simple, right? Think again. Robot elbows still have their own unique engineering challenges. 

Let’s take a look: 

  • Extra joints, extra issues. That means more motors, gears, linkages, and control systems to design and integrate. With more moving parts, there are more potential points of failure too.
  • Increased weights can cause a mess. The elbow segment has to be lightweight yet strong enough to support the wrist and end-effector mass at full extension. Too much weight can cause vibrations, positioning errors, and excess wear on components.
  • Lockout can be an issue. Certain elbow configurations can create what's known as a singularity position. Here, the robotic arm loses one degree of freedom, reducing its real-world skill. 
  • Harder to program. Inverse kinematics for elbowed arms is more complex than simple linear/cylindrical robots. Path planning and collision avoidance algorithms must account for the extra geometric constraints.
  • More components mean higher maintenance needs. Elbow joints may need regular lubrication, calibration, or even parts replacement over time due to wear. Good design eases these processes.

Summing up

As we’ve established, a robot elbow is a joint that allows the arm to bend and flex to access tight spaces and perform various jobs from different angles. 

Though tricky to design well, elbow joints open up a new world of possibilities

Plus, it’s not like this is one-and-done tech: Elbows will only get more robust and reliable. And that means robot arms will keep on flexing their artificial muscles in ever more impressive ways. 

Next steps

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Extra safe: Designed for collaboration with your team, RO1 incorporates advanced sensors and cameras to ensure a safe working environment.

Schedule a 30-day risk-free trial and discover how RO1 can drive growth for your business.

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