Addressing the need for more flexible HMLV production lines

21 June 2021

Historically HMLV production lines have relied heavily on manual labour, with automation representing something of a programming challenge. However, Oliver Giertz believes that the latest developments in programming are set to change this.

Collaborative robots (cobots) are designed to work alongside people to help boost production speed and increase quality by taking over the burden of repetitive or strenuous tasks. However, cobot technology can go much further – addressing the growing need for greater production flexibility and mobility while providing an automation solution for mass customisation in production.

The latest developments in collaborative robotics are providing manufacturers with the tools they need to effectively move towards high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) production. This means it is now possible to automate production involving frequent changeovers, with the programming of cobots for a new task taking just a matter of minutes – even for an operator with little or no programming knowledge.

The ability to teach the cobot through a hand-guiding process  – either point-based or path-based – is part of the answer, and certainly this has long been a key attraction of the technology. Mitsubishi Electric, for example, has sought to make programming even easier for operators of its MELFA ASSISTA cobot with the provision of a ‘teach’ button on the cobot arm itself to initiate the process, while automatically generating the cobot icon in its visual programming software. 

This hand-guided teaching, though, is only part of the story. For the effective integration of cobots into HMLV production processes, there needs to be the possibility for more sophisticated programming without any additional complexity. Key to this is the ability to quickly and easily interface with tooling, vision equipment, other peripherals and the wider control system. The opportunity to simulate the operation of the cobot without hardware being installed should also be provided.

This is where Mitsubishi Electric’s RT VisualBox programming software for the cobot is proving to be a key enabler, providing manufacturers with the tools they need to extend the potential of cobots without adding complexity. RT VisualBox brings intuitive flow-chart programming to cobot installations, with users creating programs simply by dragging and dropping function blocks and then setting the parameters. Again, it means that no in-depth programming knowledge is required to set up basic cobot applications.

The software provides ‘plug and play’ integration with vision systems and grippers. A configuration wizard within RT VisualBox provides operators with an intuitive methodology for setting up peripherals. Other equipment, for example feeding systems can be directly controlled with libraries over Ethernet. 

With any application, proof of concept is key, and RT VisualBox enables users to simulate the cobot’s task without any hardware attached. It means a new application can be tested thoroughly before committing to hardware and provides a digital twin for the cobot installation where ideas and approaches can be simulated. RT VisualBox reduces engineering time and cost by effectively becoming a facilitator for the in-house development of cobot applications.

From pick and place to palletising and packaging, from assembly to quality assurance, cobots have proven themselves to be useful co-workers alongside human operatives. With recent advances in intuitive programming, manufacturers now have the tools to bring even greater flexibility to their processes, automating even high-mix operations that require frequent changeovers.

Oliver Giertz is product manager for Servo/Motion and robotics for the EMEA region at Mitsubishi Electric, Factory Automation.


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