The role of robotics in flexible production

09 April 2019

Peter Lange believes that combining the power of mobile robots and cobots is key to making factories more flexible to cope with rapidly changing demands.

Factories today are being pressured to produce ever more individual products to meet fast changing consumer demands. Other considerations include shorter product life cycles and skilled labour shortages and to handle these issues this is it necessary to build in more production flexibility to enable quick line changeovers and layout changes.
In many applications, greater flexibility can be introduced if the traditional production line is ‘broken up’ into individual cells. With such process modules, products can be more easily customised and the modules can be rearranged if necessary. If a specific product isn’t produced, the other process modules still continue to work.
Driverless transport systems (AIV/AGV) or mobile robots can be used to ensure a flexible and reliable flow of goods between these individual modules. This solves the issue of increasingly variable products produced in small quantities, constantly changing production conditions, and the just-in-time provision of different components. 
Collaborative robots that can work safely alongside people also have an important role to play in enabling flexible manufacturing. A new generation of cobots is emerging in response to Industry 4.0. In applications where flexibility  and not production speed is key, collaborative robots are now filling the gap, with extremely user-friendly software tools and integrated sensory functions. Advances in machine vision systems, location capabilities and integration with warehouse systems is helping to achieve this.
Collaborative robots can be widely deployed in production, testing, quality control, packaging and palletising applications, for example, as well as intralogistics. They can support people in assembly processes when precision and repeatability are key, or could apply adhesives and seals with simultaneous quality control. Thanks to repeatability, they are also suited for automating complex quality tests, and the ability to lift heavy objects means they can also be used as palletisers when partnered with the appropriate safety equipment.
Joining forces
Bringing cobots and mobile robots together is the obvious next step. Collaborative robots mounted on mobile robots are expected become integral to innovative logistic solutions. Manufacturers should be looking at how to integrate collaborative robots into their more flexible, constantly evolving production environments, particularly where the re-deployment of machines, line changeovers and conveyors is a requirement.
When you add the ever-growing capabilities of machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) into the mix, the possibilities for robots grows even further. A collaborative robot, for example, can have a built-in intelligent vision system which would give it totem pairing, object position, bar code identification, colour differentiation, and other vision functions. Gestures can guide the robot by hand, and change the degree of freedom of the hand-guide function according to different conditions.
The increasing use of cobots and mobile robots is another step towards the flexible manufacturing industry of the future, where humans and machines will work together in harmony. When machines can relieve people of monotonous or stressful tasks and allow them to concentrate on more value-add tasks, production lines will run more smoothly, helping to increase efficiency and productivity.

Peter Lange is robotics manager at Omron Europe.

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