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Newest mobile robots require no factory overhaul

By Karen Haywood Queen Contributing Editor, SME Media

Come as you are: The latest mobile robots are designed to accomplish tasks in manufacturing plants without requiring major factory modifications. This emerging robot generation also meets workers where they are, functioning more like independent team members as opposed to complicated, difficult-to-use hardware.

Niels Jul Jacobsen atop a MiR100, one of several autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) his firm, Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), sells.

“A robot should not trigger that you have to redo your whole environment because the robot comes in,” Niels Jul Jacobsen, founder of Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), said. “Our mindset is that a robot should use the environment it is in. Advances in sensors and mathematics made it possible for the robot to know its position in a dynamic environment.”

Smartphone technology played a role in developing these robots, referred to both as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs).

The gyroscope on a tiny chip in a mobile phone that maintains the orientation of a mobile phone is small enough and finally cheap enough to play a role on the manufacturing floor, he said.

Also in play was the technology used to produce self-driving cars, Jacobsen said.

“Autonomous mobile robots are just starting to penetrate into manufacturing,” Waypoint Robotics CEO Jason Walker said. “The potential benefits are huge. We just recently crossed over the line where they’re meeting people’s expectations. People are starting to realize what’s possible. This is the state of the art in robotics.”

Uses of Waypoint robots vary from automotive manufacturing to industrial cricket farming, he said.

AMRs can move more independently

AIVs/AMRs are equipped with internal mapping algorithms, letting them move independently around a factory floor, Darrell Paul, marketing manager for robotics and motion at Omron Automation Americas, said.

Meantime their older cousins, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), must follow a sequential, mapped out path from site to site, he said.

To function in a factory, traditional AGVs also need to use static features—light rails, markings on floors and ceilings and field markers—for navigation, Jacobsen said.
The flexibility is a key selling point for users.

“If an AGV has to deliver parts to 10 stops down the line, it has to go to each of these stops in sequence,” Paul said. “Not only the path, but the order of the process can not be changed. If your real need is at the end of the line, it cannot dynamically change the direction, path, or order in which it goes. You have to go all the way through the path to get to the end of the line even though there may have been a shorter route or stops you didn’t need to make in between.”

Instead of following a sequential path of 1-10, workers could request an AMR deliver parts or product to 2, 6 and 10, depending on current needs, he said.

AGVs also are limited by their specific route programming, which doesn’t work well in the real world where employees leave boxes or other obstacles in the aisles, Walker said.

“A real-world environment is changing all the time,” he said. “People are unpredictable. They leave boxes in the wrong place. If you leave a box in an aisle where an AGV needs to go, it’s going to stop and wait for somebody to move that box. It will wait for months if you let it.”

“The problem with robots has always been the robot,” Walker said. “What we’re trying to do is fix the robot.”

Quick ROI

Depending on the number of robots and the complexity of the application, return on investment can range from six months to two years, Paul said.

Or it could be even faster.

“In one factory because of the nature of their work, their ROI was a matter of days,” Walker said. “If we can move the needle just a tiny bit on efficiency, the throughput improves so much.”

Although an individual AMR costs more than an individual AGV, the cost of integration is less because AMRs cost less to set up and integrate, Paul said. An engineer sets up an AGV system and often must return to the factory for any troubleshooting, Jacobsen said.

Goal: Easy integration and use

Waypoint’s Vector is designed to avoid complicated setups. “With Waypoint, you take it out of the box, use the robot itself to create a map, like driving a remote-controlled car around the building, then park the robot where you want it to stop,” Walker said. “Once you have all those parking places marked, you can tell the robot to go and it finds its own way to get there.”

Adding lighting to the internal mapping helps the AIVs improve navigation, Paul said. While shelving units may be moved, factory floor lighting typically doesn’t change.

Leading manufacturers are designing AMRs to be easy to use with a smart phone, Jacobsen said. Workers are quickly adapting to the emerging technology and early users are coming up with new ways to use AMRs, he said.

“The MIR was intended to be easier for any worker to operate,” Jacobsen said. “We did that by using a device that everyone knows: your smart phone. Now we have many ladies in their 50s who are very good at operating our robots.”

Waypoint Robotics made its AMRs easy to summon.

The Waypoint Whistle “works like an elevator callbox that you can put anywhere in your factory,” Walker said. “It has a big blue button: you push it and a robot shows up. There are other buttons on the device that can send robots to other destinations.”

Workers have different views of AGVs and AIVs, Paul said.

“The AGV is perceived by the operator as an additional piece of automation, another piece of machinery,” he said. “The autonomous intelligent vehicle is a little more personal. It’s collaborative. Autonomous intelligent vehicles open it up for collaborative automation. Instead of a piece of automation, workers think of it as this equipment is a way of making me more productive.”

Productivity goes up, stress goes down

Productivity increases because workers don’t have to stop what they’re doing to deliver a cart or to wait on another worker to bring parts, Paul said. “An operator may gain 25 percent to 30 percent productivity.

It’s a costly waste of time when those skilled workers have to stop what they’re doing to move parts or products from one part of the factory to another.

“Machinists who know everything about the CNC machine they use every day are tired of pushing a cart every time they need to load materials into the CNC,” Walker said. “We talked to companies whose most valuable, most skilled employees spend hours and hours pushing carts. It’s absurd.”

“We visited a company that manufactures transmissions. It’s like a trillion-piece puzzle. When they get in the zone, there’s a rhythm to it. They have all these parts floating around in their minds. The last thing they want to do is stop and push a 300-pound transmission across a factory and lift it onto a conveyor. They hate it. They were glad to see our AMRs.”

By empowering the users, those users come up with new solutions that manufacturers hadn’t thought about, Jacobsen said.

A company in Finland had a mechanical fixture with a separate motor and a PLC for pushing down boxes. The operators came up with the idea to use the robot to go into the station, push a lever and the box came down automatically. I’ve seen in several factories where you have one or two workers who can now do other jobs because they’re not pushing the boxes.”

Another factory realized unexpected benefits from deploying AMRs to deliver samples for quality control, he said. Before the autonomous robots, workers delivered batches of products for quality control four times a day.

“They predicted that the main benefit would be that the workers didn’t have to get out of what they were doing and take 10 minutes to deliver the product,” he said.

But they found two other benefits.

First, quality control worked much smoother running batches every 10 minutes with AMRs, he said. “Before, with the large amount of samples, quality control got very busy. They had to wait a long time before they got results back. Having the robots come by every 10 minutes for smaller batches, the whole process of quality control coming back got much faster. That saved a lot of work—an effect they didn’t anticipate when they started.”

The second benefit: Employee stress went down. “Employees didn’t have to stop what they were doing,” Jacobsen said.

Automation door opens wider

The improved, intuitive technology has opened the door for more factory automation—for smaller and medium sized plants and for plants with more dynamic, flexible needs and conditions.

“The AMR is better suited for companies that said no to AGVs because of their limitations,” Walker said. “A lot of people who have AGVs now either rebuilt their operation to accommodate them or their production facility was so rigid, so regimented than an AGV can work in that incredibly structured environment. The other 99 percent of the manufacturing world is too chaotic. Those people have been saying no to AGVs for a long time. Those are the people we want to reach with AMRs.”

What’s next

MiR in June introduced the MiR500 which is a bigger, faster and stronger mobile robot, Jacobsen said. It has a lifting capacity of 500 kg (1,100 lbs) and can automatically collect, transport and deliver pallets with speeds of nearly 4.5 mph.

The MIR500 joins the MiR100 and MiR200 to form a complete fleet of flexible and easy-to-program MiR robots for both heavy and light transport that can optimize logistics throughout the entire production chain from warehouse to the delivery of goods, he said.

What’s next for Waypoint is to take the Workforce First design approach, “and all of the work that we have done on ease of use, and give workers those capabilities in robots with different form factors,” Walker said.

Vector fills a need that has been voiced over and over: a compact AMR that can move where people move, Walker said. “But our customers also need to move bigger things, with the same ease and precision as Vector, so we will be responding to those requests.”

As early adopters of AIVs provide feedback to designers, mobile robots will become more intelligent, complex and collaborative, Paul said. Improving tech will enable more fleet-wide management and navigation, he added.

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