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Shaping the future

18 March 2019

Malte Schlüter looks at the main trends that are currently influencing the manufacturing and packaging industries and which are expected to shape the future.

For many industries, constant adaptation is essential to meet market requirements. Changes are being influenced by factors such as regulation, skills shortages and digital transformation. To turn these challenges into opportunities companies must increasingly rely on solutions such as human-robot collaboration and the use of artificial intelligence to manage intensive data processing. The main technology trends include:

Collaborative robots
Diversification, personalisation and ever smaller batch sizes cannot always be handled economically via automated high-speed processes in mass production. The corresponding tasks are often transferred to third-party partners and customisation experts, who tend to employ costly human intensive resources to perform complex or unique tasks on small batches. Conventional industrial robots are therefore more likely to play a subordinate role in this area.

A clear trend across manufacturing and packaging enterprises, however, is the increased demand for collaborative robots (cobots) to work alongside humans. "This trend is not about displacing classic industrial robots, but is about supplementing them and adding advances in automation." 

Equipped with a vision system robots can relieve people of monotonous, tiring and physically stressful tasks by, for example, correctly orienting parts or lifting loads. In this way, they can help to increase the efficiency and quality of human work.

Cobots are designed from the outset to be used in close proximity to humans, that means they operate with forces and acceleration parameters that are harmless to humans and which are specified in the ISO TS15066 safety guideline. Mitsubishi Electric is currently developing a new collaborative robot with features that ensure there is no risk of injury from crushing edges and a surface that is easy to clean and prevents dirt traps - while still achieving the same repeat accuracy of ±0.02 mm as its industrial robots. The prototypes are still under testing, but they have already been presented at international exhibitions.

A further feature of cobots is the simplicity of their control and programming requirements, which can be carried out by trained personnel at the end user company. This eliminates the ongoing need for external system integrators or programmers. In addition, they can be used flexibly in many application areas within the manufacturing, assembly and packaging industries and can be quickly reprogrammed and redeployed to where they are most needed. Mitsubishi Electric’s prototype offers various teaching options. These range from force-controlled manual movement of the robot arm to the desired position, through to visual programming and user interfaces on tablets or mobile devices for calibration and parameterization.

Robots without protective barriers
For industrial robots, the market demand is for alternative safety solutions to fences, barriers, cages and cells. After all, these safety precautions occupy valuable production space, mean high additional cleaning costs in hygienic areas, and prevent a meaningful cooperation with workers. In addition, there are complex restart procedures required after an emergency stop or if protective barriers have been opened. Instead, optical safety systems can be applied. Laser scanners are widely used to monitor defined zones around the robot. 

A special feature offered by Mitsubishi Electric is a safety-relevant reduction in the speed of movement for our industrial robots. As soon as a human enters the outer zone the robot will slow down. When a person enters the area where there is a danger of direct contact with the robot will stop immediately.

Instead of securing an area with light barriers and laser scanners, entire rooms are increasingly being monitored with camera systems. In the future, vision systems equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) will recognise when and where people enter the robot's workspace and regulate its speed accordingly. In this way, people will soon be able to move freely and safely around robots. With a view to achieving this objective Mitsubishi Electric is actively working with its partners to develop practical solutions ready to bring to the market.

In robotics, AI describes the ability to react appropriately to unforeseen and non-programmed situations. If, for example, a robot receives a product that deviates from the standard in terms of orientation, geometry or packaging, then without AI it could not identify these irregularities and react accordingly. Robot systems equipped with AI and corresponding vision systems as sensors can now learn to identify these deviations and adapt their processes. 

AI is also used for high-volume manufacturing where intelligent robots detect quality defects in products to be packaged and replace these with flawless products during the process – even within individual production cells. Robots that can be moved manually or even mounted on driverless transport systems can also quickly detect their new position and adapt their process sequences using AI.

Data mining
Against the backdrop of a desire to increase overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) by means of digitalisation, there is a high demand for analysis of extracted data (data mining) from production. In the first instance there is a recipe and production data for internal evaluation. In addition, the condition and operating profile of devices like the robot’s components such as servo drives can be recorded. This provides valuable information about the status of wear parts and any contamination, for example. 

The resulting database information then enables predictive maintenance strategies with a significant saving potential in maintenance costs. To improve these strategies further, Mitsubishi Electric is developing a new edge computing technology that will be fully commercialised in the course of 2019. It is aiming at leveraging the value of manufacturer’s data using advanced analytic algorithms executed on the edge of the shop floor.

Another important category of process data is the one that is used for traceability and consumer information, especially in the food sector. This can be employed, for example, to prove compliance with the cold chain or to attach origin information to food packaging that can be called up via a QR code. Collecting data from PLCs, controls and drives centrally and processing it locally using special edge computing technologies helps reduce the bill for storage space in the cloud in addition to delivering many other advantages for production control and monitoring. 

Far from replacing all manual work, as fully integrated, intelligent colleagues robots can help to make tasks more comfortable and efficient. This is no longer a dream of the future, as the technologies are already available and are economic to use.

Malte Schlüter is global key account director F&B/ CPG at Mitsubishi Electric.

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