Suction control

13 July 2021

With the advent of ‘cobots’, automated technology is becoming more advanced than ever before. Jenny Eagle gets to grips with the latest vacuum and manual handling equipment in manufacturing.

With a continuous growing trend in automation, further driven by e-commerce, a rise in cobots and integration of vacuum generation for handling technology, valves, and safety components directly into grippers, we take a look at the latest miniaturization and Industry 4.0 capabilities.

According to the UK Government HSE (Health & Safety Executive) figures, manual handling is responsible for more than a third of all injuries resulting in three or more days absence. More than half of all workdays lost to work-related health problems involve injured muscle, bone or connecting tissue, collectively known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSD).

”MSD is the greatest health and safety challenge for Europe”. Over 40 million EU workers are affected by MSD. These injuries (accidents not included) cost employers over €385 million or between 0.5% and 2% of the Gross National Product,” a significant burden on the EU economy”.

Vacuum handling systems are typically used to assist with jobs that previously would have been done manually such as lifting and positioning boxes or sacks. The systems typically feature a swinging arm jib crane, with a vacuum-based manipulator attached, moved manually by the operator to position the lifting attachment onto the load, and then to move the load itself.

They can also be used for picking up loads that are hard to pick up using standard systems, often because they are solid sheets of marble, metal, glass or similar materials, and so don’t have a place where a bracket for a hook can be fitted. The loads can also be fragile and need gentle handling, by using suction cups and a vacuum system rather than grasping the load from the sides and underneath.

Piab talks to Hoist about the general trend across all applications, and the quest for energy efficiency, while we also look at Schmalz and Zimmer Groups latest collaboration on Match – a multi-functional end-of-arm platform, and the launch of Palamatic’s Pal-Trac Cleanroom Monorail Hoist earlier this year.

With the evolution of Industry 4.0, the rise in ‘Collaborative Robots’, otherwise known as “cobots”, machinery can work even closer with humans than ever before to perform their tasks.

“Indeed, unlike their more isolated counterparts, cobots are intentionally built to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace and while this term may be new to you cobots aren’t actually new. The first examples emerged in the mid 1990s from university research projects and the General Motors (GM) Robotics center in which humans would provide the power to make the machines move while the cobots would provide the control and steering to place objects with precision,” reports Forbes. “In this way, humans were safe because they controlled the power of the robot while gaining all the advantages in assistive capabilities that the machine would provide.

Instead of replacing humans with autonomous counterparts, cobots augment and enhance human capabilities with super strength, precision, and data capabilities so that they can do more and provide more value to the organization.

Piab, established in 1951, is continuously evolving its automation through progressive gripping, lifting, and moving solutions and even more so when it joined Patricia Industries, part of Investor AB in 2018.

“Over the years we have seen a continuously growing trend in automation, which continues until today and received a further push by the pandemic driving e-commerce growth and the inherent need to automize logistic and warehousing processes to keep up with the exploding demand. At the same time with the advent of cobots small and light is the new beautiful in robotics to leave as much space and weight for the products to be lifted rather than taking capacities by the gripper. This also implies further integration of vacuum generation, valves, and safety components directly into grippers as well as miniaturization and Industry 4.0 capabilities to allow predictive maintenance and further reduce machine downtimes,” says Josef Karbassi, president, Vacuum Automation Division, Piab.

“The surge in e-commerce demand also moved robotic automation away from gripping specified products from a well-defined spot to another equally well-defined spot to random bin picking of a large variety of objects with different surfaces, geometries and materials.

In 2014 the piCOMPACT stackable ejector platform was launched providing the possibility to mount several units in the same manifold and have common pneumatic and electrical connections. Just five years later it became the first Industry 4.0 capable vacuum ejector equipped with an IO Link and other Smart features that enable predictive maintenance, increase handling safety, and allow overall process monitoring and optimization.

Almost 50 years after launching its first vacuum product, Piab acquired Swedish company Vaculex; a manufacturer of lifting equipment based on vacuum technology. In 2020, Piab also acquired TAWI. Together with Vaculex, TAWI today forms a strong Piab Ergonomic Handling division focused on smart lifting solutions, put to market under the TAWI brand.

“Contrary to specified grippers in automotive production, there is now a need for generic grippers and suction cups – a challenge Piab took on recently, launching the MX suction cup. The MX suction cup is not a top-level performer for any specific application as this would disqualify it for other items. It perfectly balances trade-offs to fit all applications,” adds Karbassi.

“A general trend across all applications is the quest for energy efficiency – a demand Piab is satisfying by continuously improving its already best in class vacuum generation products. As COAX ejectors are up to twice as fast as other ejectors and deliver three times more flow than a conventional ejector with identical air consumption, Piab’s vacuum pumps can deliver high performance even with low or fluctuating supply pressure. This makes them particularly energy efficient and reduces the cost of providing compressed air and thus the total cost of production. This information is based on the result of independent comparison tests conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU in Dresden that have shown the Piab ejectors require significantly lower compressed air to achieve the same output compared to ejectors from other manufacturers.”

With the vast number of applications and possible solutions what customers are really after says Karbassi is technical consultancy to help them chose the right automation products for each of their specific applications.

“We have a lot of customers turning to us because their first trials automating processes failed as they did not find the best possible solution for their respective tasks. We always appreciate the opportunity to get a thorough understanding of each customer’s application to ensure the offer we prepare matches the requirements and meets or exceeds the original expectations,” he says.

“The trend for further automation will continue with a stronger interaction between different technologies and levels of automation. While we have seen a rapid increase in demand for robotic automation in tedious and heavy manual handling applications such as order fulfilment, de-palletizing and singulation of parcels the real dawn is forecasted for this year with up to 620,000 logistic robot unit shipments by this year,” adds Karbassi.

“Robots will be more common in new industries outside the manufacturing industry. The logistics and warehouses are a good example as are the service industry and health care.

“In the manufacturing industry new use cases will evolve. At this moment we see this happening for EV/HEV vehicles where large numbers of batteries and battery packs need to be produced, handled, and assembled with robot assistance. Vision guided robot systems will see a big demand in new industries with a more unstructured environment as found in random bin picking application of mixed containers. The same goes for collaborative robots that can work side-by-side with humans lowering the threshold to invest in robot automation. More mobile robot application will evolve, especially when operators of brown-field plants want to increase their degree of automation to maintain competitiveness,” adds Karbassi.

“Vacuum as a basis for gripping will gain momentum. It is a low-cost, easy to use and very reliable technology. To set-up and program, a robot will become even easier going forward. Today, software support modules in robot controllers already exists for specific grippers and applications making it much easier to start-up operations and also to implement changes in the robot program further down the line.”


Schmalz manufactures robotic vacuum automation products, robotic end-of-arm vacuum gripper tools, material handling vacuum lifters and manipulators as well as CNC vacuum clamping tools.

Gary Vickerson, VP, Operations, Schmalz, says the company is re-investing 8% of annual revenues every year back into R&D, hiring and training apprentices and is looking to bring continued growth to the industry in the coming years.

Since the recession in 2009, it has grown at high double-digit rates every year for the last 12 years driven by the increased automation found in warehouse logistics and manufacturing at some leading US manufacturers and e-commerce retailers.

It recently revised its vacuum lifting device VacuMaster Comfort for loads up to max. 750 kg with an optimised operating unit in an ergonomic design and a newly designed control panel, so that the user can operate its vacuum lifting device more comfortably and intuitively.

The ergonomically shaped, wide operating handle reduces the effort required for handling and the user-friendly operation has a control unit with two rows of buttons: The user can clearly assign the individual functions using coloured buttons which have symbols on them to reduce the risk of operating errors.

The user activates the vacuum with the green control button and deactivates it by pressing the two red switches simultaneously. The grey travel sensor controls the up and down movement of the chain hoist in two speeds each. Depending on the version, the user of the lifting aid activates the swivelling (VacuMaster Comfort 90), turning (VacuMaster Comfort 180) or rotating (VacuMaster Window Comfort) of the load with the blue button. And if something should go wrong, Schmalz has installed an emergency stop switch centrally, which can be used to stop the up and down movement and, if necessary, the rotating, swivelling or turning movement. The control panel replaces its previous technology and is available in three versions: as a rigid version, with continuously adjustable working height or as a version for adjusting the working height as well as tilting the control panel. With the optional adjustment and tilt function, it allows ergonomic handling even in high or low positions.

Thanks to its continued success, Schmalz celebrated the groundbreaking of its Phase I expansion to its Raleigh North Carolina, headquarters in May.

The company has been growing rapidly since it was founded in Raleigh 22 years ago. The existing building of its US headquarters was only completed in July 2016; and due to continued, rapid growth over the past three years, the first significant expansion is already being executed ahead of schedule.

The new construction will triple the size of its existing facility and is scheduled for completion and ready to move-in at the end of the year, 2021.

The investments to date in the Raleigh location total well over $14m and more investments are planned in the coming years. The investments it has made over the last few years have led to a tripling of the staff and will lead up to 62 more new jobs over the coming years.

The additional building will provide more room for assembly and testing of the growing robotic automation and material handling systems product offerings.

“This new setup will decisively improve the overall material flow at Schmalz from parts receipt, to manufacturing, testing, packaging and dispatch of the finished robot gripping tools and manipulator handling systems,” said John Feutz, VP, Strategic Operations, Schmalz.

In a further collaboration, Schmalz partnered with Zimmer Group in April this year to launch Match - a multi-functional end-of-arm platform equipped with a range of functions and universal communication interfaces. Zimmer Group is known for its mechanical grippers while Schmalz is known for its vacuum based technologies the collaboration combines the advantages of both in gripping technologies.

Designed to be compatible with all common lightweight and conventional robots, Match can be mounted to a robot flange and set up quickly with a few manual adjustments. It has a mechanical interface, pneumatic/vacuum connection and electrical interfaces and can be used with a variety of robot types.

The flexibility of the system gives the user access to a range of applications, whether they are with mobile robots, collaborative robots or other types of automation, across production, assembly, warehouse logistics, shipping and laboratory automation operations.

In addition to automated changeover using a gripper docking station, items can also be exchanged manually within seconds. Thanks to the ergonomic click system integrated within end effector being changed, it is possible to carry out a manual gripper change using one hand.

Zimmer Group and Schmalz each have their own systems that the user can draw upon for digital integration. In addition to the SCM communication module (master gateway), it has a guideZ setup software for further configuration of the gripper, and Schmalz Connect Suite for diagnostics of IO-Link devices in the cloud.

The advantages of Match includes: suitability for a wide range of conventional, lightweight and collaborative robots, the capability for either automated or manual gripper exchanges, compatible with mechanical or vacuum end effectors and a long service life even in continuous automated operation. “This collaboration created something unique: a modular system that the customer can use to meet various requirements and handle diverse applications in robotics,” said Achim Gauß, managing director, Zimmer Group.

Dr. Kurt Schmalz, managing partner J. Schmalz added that Match is the first cooperation project between handling technology specialists Zimmer Group and J. Schmalz, and a multi-functional end-of-arm platform that is fit for the future.

“Whether mobile and collaborative robotics or fully automated applications, one flexible system gives the user access to a nearly unlimited range of uses from production and assembly to warehouse logistics, shipping and even laboratory automation,” says Schmalz.

Another collaboration recently reported in Hoist magazine is euroTECH, vacuum, lifting and transport technology, which has partnered with Storemaster, to develop a flat vacuum handling device for heavy-duty sheet metal storage facilities.

Dieter Paul, owner, Storemaster, was looking for a lifting device, for his MasterTower warehouse, because the metal sheets needed to be stored quickly and securely, even high up by a single worker without a ladder.

In order to utilise the available space as efficiently as possible, the new lifting device had to be very flat.

He contacted euroTECH after seeing a lifting device from its eT-Hover range and it was customised in a flat format, 350 mm tall. The eT-Hover-panel lifts small, medium-sized and large metal sheets with a size of up to 4x2 metres and a weight of up to 750 kg. It can also handle other vacuum-sealed panels made from wood, plastic, and stone using specially manufactured suction plates.

The operating functions of eT-Hover comprise; a thumb switch which initiates the upward and downward movement, a button which activates the suction and ventilation functions.

The operating handle also manoeuvres the telescope arm, which can be bent in intervals of 22.5°, to an ergonomically optimal operating position. This allows workers to reach the top drawer as well as the bottom drawer from a comfortable position without bending over or extending their back.

“We are fit for the future. Thanks to euroTECH, we rapidly realised the project we had envisaged. It saves us valuable time and quite a lot of money, too,” adds Paul.

The spiral cord running around the lifting device serves two purposes: energy supply and control of the chain hoist. A chain guide inside the spiral cable prevents the chain and cable from becoming entangled.

EuroTECH equipped the device with a vibrating function, following a request from the customer; to separate oiled or adhesive double sheets whcih can prevent accidents caused by the uncontrolled removal of double sheets.

A vacuum pump with an integrated non return valve, vacuum reservoir and two solenoid valves generates the vacuum. The components control the suction and ventilation functions. The device is equipped with an aeration unit for fast detachment of the load.

The lifting device is manufactured to DIN EN 13155 standards.

To prevent operating errors and hazards, it is equipped with a range of safety and warning systems: an integrated vacuum gauge with a red/green zone, a red and green signal light, an acoustic signal and a two-handed operating handle for the ventilation system.


In accordance with BS EN 14238:2004 Palamatic vacuum lifters operate with a minimum surface area (of the suction foot under vacuum) of two times the cross-sectional area of the lifting tube.

A Palamatic Vacuum Lifter uses a single power medium – vacuum, to grip and lift heavy or awkward loads. An electrical vacuum pump (or vacuum ejector pump) creates a vacuum level when a suction pad or gripping device is placed on an object load. The resulting low pressure makes the tube contract vertically and the object load is lifted. The operator controls the vacuum flow using a simple, finger touch operating valve, making the work physically easier and safer.

Increasing the vacuum draws air out of the tube and the load is lifted. Reducing the vacuum allows air to enter the tube and the load is lowered.

The combination of the lifting and gripping functions requires no special interlocks or devices. A quick acting non-return valve and a suction force vs. lifting force safety factor of 2.5 times, prevent the load from being inadvertently dropped – even in the event of a mains power failure.

Vacuum tube lifters are the perfect suspended-load handling aid for applications where the load is positioned below the lifting assembly’s centre of gravity. Vacuum tube lifters are not suitable for off-set or cantilevered load handling processes e.g. loading shelving/ racking - please see our Manipulator and/or PillarLift. Palamatic launched its Pal-Trac Cleanroom Monorail Hoist, at the end of last year, which has a 1000kg capacity version based on a 400v power requirement.

The design is suitable for lifting during the maintenance of vessels e.g. removing Tank Agitators/Impellers, or moving BioBags /Sacks, Charge bags, Bottles for Charging and Moving Centrifuge Bowls.

Palamtic Monorail Centrifuge
Schmalz VacuMaster Comfort
The euroTECH eT-Hover-panel for Storemaster
Lifting cheese blocks with Piab’s piGRIP suction cups.
Handling of a metal part in an automotive pressshop with Piab’s suction cups
Schmalz Match