ROS Makes the Difference - A Tormach ZA6 Robot Customer Story

There have been a number of beta users for the Tormach ZA6 Robot because we wanted to dip a toe into a number of different spaces. While the most obvious use for a robot in the Tormach ecosystem is pick-and-place with our CNC machines, there are a number of unique and interesting ways robots can be utilized outside of traditional machining environments.

Joe Spanier is a maker and programmer who has found himself in a number of engineering and programming communities, including the ROS community, which is the system on which the ZA6 Robot is based. ROS, otherwise known as Robot Operating System, is an open source platform for industrial robotic control. It’s because of the ROS community that Spanier found himself involved in the Tormach ZA6 Robot beta program.

“The fact that it was built with ROS in mind … ROS is the thing that actually runs the robot, which is significantly different from typical systems like this, where ROS is either an afterthought or an enemy to the industrial robot,” Spanier explained.

He went on to say that many other robot companies are building their platforms with a specific  ecosystem in mind. While we are quite fond of our PathPilot interface and the ecosystem it provides amongst all Tormach machines, basing the ZA6’s control system on ROS stays true to our partnership with the open-source community. 

“These days, manufacturers are starting to get onboard with incorporating ROS, but nobody is developing anything specifically to run with it. It's still an add-on, and an add-on that isn’t necessarily easy to navigate. With the ZA6, it’s built with that in mind.”

Spanier continued, “With Tormach, where there's the machine kit and ROS backbone running the robot, I’m natively running ROS from a Linux PC. There's no communication issues to navigate, none of that stuff that you have to fight. It gets all of that minutia out of your way.”

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Because Spanier's background is in working with an array of different types of code, he’s really taken the opportunity to use the ZA6’s ability to work with Python. He even spent time at a tradeshow with the robot, taking photos of patrons and tweeting them out to the world.

“It was mostly an example of like, here's how easy this robot can be to program,” he explained. “So, the robot had ten different positions programmed in that it could go to randomly. And, it had ten different robot voice insults that it could play through a speaker. Then, using a Raspberry Pi LCD, it showed the picture that it was taking, as well as some user interaction stuff. Just a button to push to activate the whole sequence. So, event visitors would walk up, push the button, the ZA6 would move to a random position, insult you with a robot voice like C-3PO, and then take your picture. But, then through more programming, it used the Twitter API to tweet out the picture from my podcast’s twitter account and tag Tormach.”

Watch what Joe did with the ZA6 Robot at the show in the video below.


The ZA6 really fits into a unique place when it comes to the cost of the robot. “It's not like “play money,” but it's definitely in the accessible realm,” Spanier explained. “Just having a company that’s even trying to do that is really exciting. Once I actually got the arm, I was impressed with the payload and size. The fact that the arm is made out of aluminum and able to just pick up a six kilogram payload is a pretty big deal. For other robots, it's really a limiting factor of just where you can put the arm, how you get it there, and being able to even afford to power the thing. That puts a limitation on what you can do. But the ZA6 really alleviates most of those challenges.”

Whether you’re a machinist looking for an inexpensive machine-tending tool or a programmer looking to discover new ways to combine systems to do exciting things, there are lots of new opportunities to use the ZA6 robot.

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