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ONU Kuka Robots Serve Ice Cream!


It's not every day you get to see industrial robots dishing out soft serve...and adding toppings!

Wherever it goes, Project Ice Cream, a workcell designed and built by students from Ohio Northern University's (ONU) Robotics Center of Excellence (RCoE), is wildly popular. People stand in long lines, mesmerized.

This April was no exception. National Robotics Challenge 2009 attendees waited patiently, watching as two Kuka KR3 industrial robots - one assigned to ice cream, another toppings - doled out individual ice cream sundaes. Not surprisingly, the system received the Crowd Pleaser Award.

Project Ice Cream was designed, built, and debuted in just five weeks last Fall (2008). Twenty-six ONU students built the robotic ice cream dispensing machine. This extracurricular venture was overseen by Dr. Adam Stieneker, Director of ONU's Robotics Center of Excellence. and Professor Rich Miller.  

The Project Ice Cream workcell consists of two Kuka KR3 robots, a Taylor soft serve ice cream machine, a topping dispenser, an Allen-Bradley Micrologix 1500 Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), Allen Bradley PanelView Component Operator Interface - C600 Touch Panel, Point Grey Research Flea2 firewire camera with VisionPro software, and customized EOAT.

Ordering an ice cream sundae is easy. Customers choose one of six toppings using the operator interface, then ready the system by placing a cup in the robot's EOAT, and a spoon in a designated spot. From there, the PLC coordinates and controls the movements of the two robots, and cues the ice cream machine, while the camera helps the robot locate, pick up, and place the spoon. See Project Ice Cream in action!

The ice cream workcell is just one of the "fun" projects ONU has created. During the 2007-2008 academic year, ONU created a table hockey-playing robot system. A team at the RCoE is currently working on a robotic table tennis cell.

"While these projects are light-hearted, they teach real-world skills and require research and development that can potentially be transferred into industrial situations," Stieneker said. All three projects have dealt with computer vision-controlled systems. "The current trends in vision guided 3D bin-picking could benefit from some of the technology developed in creating the table hockey project and the table tennis project."

Beyond that, these projects are enjoyable: "If I announce that I would like students to work on a robot that unloads small, randomly placed, metal pieces from a box I might have a few students interested.  However, if I tell the students that we are creating a robot that plays table tennis, their ears perk up and it is automatically considered fun to work on.  I found this especially [true] with the ice cream project (of course the free ice cream in the laboratory might have helped)." 

The hard work has paid off. Stieneker said they are now working on commercializing Project Ice Cream for amusement parks, restaurants, etc. The RCoE is always ready for a challenge. In fact, they offer R&D in robotics, vision, and industrial simulation.

ONU is serious about using industry-grade equipment. Not only does this give students an advantage with future employers, it also makes them aware of certain industrial hazards.

"An educational articulated robot will not likely hurt much if it collides with your arm, but an industrial robot would do some serious damage.  Educating students with industrial equipment allows them to gain a healthy respect for the equipment and helps to engrain safe working procedures into the students for their futures in industry," Stieneker said.

Interesting in learning more about ONU's robotic projects and R&D work? Contact Dr. Adam Stieneker at