Mobile robots: a game changer for flexible manufacturing?

18 September 2017

Suzanne Gill finds out more about the potentially vital work that mobile robotics will play in the factory of the future.

There has been much debate in recent years about the move towards more flexible manufacturing techniques. However, the reality for the manufacturer will surely always come down to a simple equation of cost versus volume.

Traditionally, fixed mass production has translated into lower costs per unit while more flexible production, with high variety, has translated into higher cost per unit and longer lead times.  

So, how can manufacturers now address today’s paradox – the need to provide more customised products, faster, more cost-effectively, and with less waste? Omron believes that this new era of manufacturing optimisation can only be truly achieved when manufacturers and consumers/users become connected. “Indeed, this is what IoT and Industry 4.0 are aiming to achieve through the information enabled manufacturing,” said Faouzi Grebici, industry solution manager for Omron EMEA.

Much progress has already been made in the production process to automate, robotise and address quick machine change-over to accommodate more flexible manufacturing.  Innovative solutions have also been developed to platformise and modularise end products.  A push production model is being adopted by many for standard component parts, while a pull model is implemented for finished parts. This situation now appears to be fairly standard within the automotive industry and its supply chain and this is spreading into consumer electronics and white goods production. Huge progress has also been made in automating the warehousing part.   
However, according to Grebici, there is one area of production that is lagging behind – line replenishment of components or parts to automated lines and in the area of storage of finished goods. “Such tasks are still mostly achieved manually using push-carts; semi-manually with automated guided vehicles (AGVs); or via the use of complex and rigid conveyor lines,” he said. “While this results in a highly flexible manual in-feed and out-feed, the traceability chain is broken. Further, it often results in highly skilled and expensively trained operators spending much of their time on non-added value tasks such as pushing carts. AGVs require floor marking or sensor guiding installation and maintenance and conveyor lines are inflexible and not suited for long distances between production and warehouse. There is also the difficulty of synchronising the push of parts with the pull model of finished customised goods.”
Such issues have led to the recent emergence of fully autonomous and intelligent vehicles (AIVs) that are able to work in a safe and collaborative manner with workers and are able to navigate freely and safely within the workspace, without any external guidance.  

For ease of comparison, Grebici likens AIVs to taxis and AGVs to buses. Compare, for example, the rigid routes of buses with optimised routes of taxis. The AGV (bus) is relatively bulky and can handle large loads. It follows a defined route and a rigid schedule, while the AIV (taxi) consists of a nimble and highly flexible fleet for smaller loads. This allows an efficient and relatively cost effective link between warehouse and production or even between production stations. “Because AIVs can be easily integrated into existing workspaces more frequent replenishment, with just the right amount of replenishment, is achievable and is a better solution to meet the demands of a pull production model,” claims Grebici. 

Key to success
“Key to the success of AIVs is embedded navigation software that allows free travelling without the need for any external marking or guidance,” he continued. “By walking an Omron AIV around the workspace, a built-in laser scanner maps precisely the environment. When dealing with a larger plant a fleet of up to 100 AIV’s can be efficiently managed, thanks to enterprise manager software. Border line replenishment, finished goods storage and AIV battery level control are all managed and supervised from a single software environment. A modelling and simulation tool is also available to grasp a realistic feel on load balancing and production rates. The enterprise manager can also easily interface with existing MES or ERP system. 

“The AIV is a fundamental technological brick to fulfill the vision of Omron’s NEAR factory, enabled through an integrated, interactive and intelligent automation. NEAR stands for Networked, Effective, Agile and Responsible manufacturing that strives for an optimum balance between profitability through good quality products and purpose through a cleaner planet,” said Grebici. 

Enhancing operational effectiveness
“AIV operational effectiveness can be further enhanced when wider industrial machine automation solutions, such as machine control, vision inspection, machine safety and robotics solutions are also employed to offer a complete and integrated supply and manufacturing process,” he continued.  “Beyond merely traveling from A to B, this allows the AIV to incorporate automatic loading and unloading and even on-the-go operations such as part inspection, alignment, orientation, and code reading.” 

Grebici concludes by highlighting the fact that mobile robotics are not designed simply to replace humans in an existing manufacturing model. “Training, motivating and retaining key people represents a big investment for any company so it is more important to identify whether these operators are actually doing the tasks that they were trained to do, or whether they are spending too much of their valuable time replenishing lines and transporting goods around the plant. 

Grebici believes that the AIV should be considered as a technology enabler, with maximum benefit only being achieved when the manufacturer and the technology provider engage in a co-creation journey and when both are prepared to think outside the box and are willing to move away from conventional approaches. “As we are mostly bound by non-disclosure-agreements we cannot elaborate on the numerous cases to demonstrate this point. However, we can cite a recurrent theme, where we start working with a manufacturer on improving productivity and reducing machinery idling times and discover that reducing the intermediate stock with all the side benefits that come with it would offer the biggest benefits. Such hidden advantages include traceability, floor space, workers productivity etc... There is even an anecdote of a famous top luxury wearables producers where the insurance fee reduction outweighed the productivity gain as the former was estimated according to the gold and other noble metals on the production lines,” said Grebici. “As the saying goes… the real treasure is mostly in the journey itself. We believe that we are at the wake of a very exciting journey,” concludes Grebici.  

Contact Details and Archive...

Related Articles...

Print this page | E-mail this page