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Mobile robots: supporting lean objectives

12 April 2018

Control Engineering Europe finds out how a new breed of robots – autonomous mobile robots – are supporting lean approaches to production on today’s more dynamic plant floors.

As manufacturers embrace lean approaches to their operations, there is continual evaluation of any opportunities to optimise production. executives are evaluating their opportunities to continually optimise productivity. Even in highly automated facilities, material handling often remains a manual, inefficient process and automating material transportation to reduce production bottlenecks and deploy valuable human workers more effectively has been a challenge.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are no longer able to provide the flexibility needed in today’s agile manufacturing processes. However, new sensor and software technologies are making autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) a good solution for often unpredictable and changing production layouts and dynamic work environments.

Manual transportation
Manual transportation requires workers to leave their stations to push carts loaded with materials between manufacturing processes and the stockroom, and can result in production backlogs and idle workers as they wait for assemblies and parts to be delivered. Plant set-up is often dynamic, with new production cells and processes that must be supported and people, equipment, pallets, and other obstacles can appear in what used to be open passageways. Any automated material transportation approach needs to be flexible and adaptable without additional cost or disruption to processes, not to mention safe for operation around employees. That flexibility also means that automated material handling must be easy to learn, programme, deploy, and redeploy in-house to ensure that the chosen approach can keep up-to-date with requirements cost-effectively.

Traditional automated guided vehicles (AGVs) move materials using fixed routes guided by permanent wires, magnetic strips, or sensors embedded in the plant floor. However, those systems are inflexible and do not fit with the trend for more dynamic manufacturing floors. If manufacturing processes change, the facility must be updated again—and if people or material temporarily blocks the AGV’s route, it simply stops until the way is cleared. In contrast, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are designed to work within dynamic and changing environments. They offer the flexibility, safety, and cost-effectiveness that allows companies of any size to automate and optimise material handling.

An AMR navigates via sensors, cameras, and software built into the robot itself, without the need for external sensors or guides. Once the robot has learned its surroundings – either by uploading a facility blueprint or by piloting the robot around the plant to develop its own map – it will recognise its surroundings and can take the most efficient route to its destination autonomously, safely avoiding obstacles and people.

Magna-Power, a US-based manufacturer of power products, deployed two Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) AMRs to move parts and assemblies from the stockroom and through its vertically integrated manufacturing floor. “One thing that was pretty astonishing for me is that the MiR robot was delivered and 15 minutes later it was unpacked and on the floor,” said Adam Pitel, VP of operations at Magna-Power. “In another 15 minutes, I’m controlling it with my mobile phone, and within two hours it is travelling from point to point in our building, after uploading a schematic of our facilities,” he continued.

The fast and easy integration of AMRs make them capable of adding new efficiencies almost immediately. With low initial costs and fast optimisation of processes, they offer remarkably fast return on investment – often in less than six months.

Efficiency gains
AMRs can bring efficiency gains to a number of operations related to production and material handling. As businesses grow, AMR implementation can expand simultaneously with minimal additional costs. Moreover, the AMR is collaborative and can be used in nearly any situation where employees are currently spending time pushing carts or making deliveries. Automating these low-value tasks means that employees can focus on higher-value activities. At Magna-Power the implementation of the two MiRs has freed the equivalent of three full-time employees, who can now focus all their attention on the tasks they were hired to do. “The purpose of the robot is not to replace employees, but to make them more efficient with their time,” explains Grant Pitel, VP of engineering at Magna-Power. “Now they can focus on the things that we can’t get a robot to do.”

AMRs can perform the monotonous and repetitive tasks of material transportation without breaks that can disrupt the assembly process. NewForm, a manufacturer of Italian-designed bath taps and fittings, is seeing these benefits with its two MiR robots.

Damiano Marconi, technical assistant at NewForm, said: “Now our lines are active on a 24/7 ‘lights out’ basis, because they are automatically loaded and unloaded.” Moreover, the MiRs are integrated with the production planning system and provide a real-time overview of materials. “We can guarantee a real-time production control. The very simple integration software can easily communicate with both our machine tools and our data server, so we can easily track every piece, its position and condition in real-time.”

Modern manufacturing environments can no longer be dependent on costly, inflexible legacy technologies. Nor can they afford to continue the unproductive manual transportation of materials, especially in today’s tight labour market. Autonomous mobile robots now offer an agile alternative to AGVs or manual delivery, providing flexibility, cost-effectiveness, return on investment, and productivity optimisation.

MiR AMRs are available in the UK from RARUK Automation.

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