You might assume that robots should work together well in a shared workspace. As it turns out, they can be just as territorial as people—and if asked to perform the same task in close proximity, they might even bump heads (or, more precisely, bump arms).
In an effort to prevent such problems, Schaeffler Technologies AG saw an opportunity to improve manufacturing throughput and reduce the required cell footprint of certain automated tasks. For example, if two picking robots could grab material from the same bin without colliding, the company could make better use of floor space and increase production speeds.
That’s exactly what Schaeffler’s New Production Concepts unit (NPC) wanted to accomplish. And with the help of Boston-based Realtime Robotics Inc.’s RapidPlan motion control and collision avoidance software, the results have exceeded expectations.
Schaeffler, a Herzogenaurach, Germany-based conglomerate that focuses on motion and mobility solutions, manufactures precision components and systems for automotive powertrain and chassis systems, as well as rolling and plain bearing products for other transportation (including space shuttles) and industrial applications. The company has been committed to innovation and development for more than 75 years—it submitted more than 1,800 patent applications in 2021 alone—with an emphasis on efficient, intelligent, and sustainable products.
In 2021, Realtime Robotics began working with NPC to support Schaeffler’s Special Machinery (SMB) department, which develops new and turnkey production systems. In this case, NPC functioned as a pre-development department to identify, benchmark, and develop production technologies that SMB can eventually use to help internal and external customers improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of their operations.
Realtime Robotics aims to transform automation with flexible robot control capabilities built on RapidPlan. The software enables single or multiple robots to operate autonomously at full speed in unstructured and uncaged environments, according to the supplier.
NPC wanted to test RapidPlan in a complex and unpredictable environment to better understand the software’s potential benefits. This was done by building a simultaneous, dual-robot, bin-picking application in a shared workspace.
For the most part, bin picking has been limited to one robot at a time. If there were two or more robots, they were in a separated workspace or each used a separate bin. Because the robots needed to be separated to prevent the chance of collisions, additional space was required.
“What Schaeffler was hoping to accomplish was to have two robots picking from the same bin, without having to worry about collisions,” explained Alejandro Soler Fenoll, senior manager, application engineer team at Realtime Robotics. “And by doing this, they wanted to prove that RapidPlan could speed it up. First of all, it can speed up deployments. And it can protect cells against unwanted downtime because of collisions. ... They (also) wanted to look at ways of increasing throughput without duplicating the cell.”
When multiple robots are in use and parts are in an unpredictable location each time, the programming needs to be very precise, as the location and actions of each robot need to be tightly controlled.
The NPC team reviewed other potential solutions and found them unable to do more than improve the action of a single robot at a time. This is why RapidPlan software was so attractive to Schaeffler. The promise of two robots working together in close quarters without collision was promising. Not only could the process be sped up and more complex cells be navigated, but the available space on the assembly line floor could be better used to increase production.
The results of Schaeffler’s testing exceeded expectations, showing that running two units in tandem would dramatically improve the bin-picking time, according to the partners. Traditionally, to avoid collisions, each robot has to wait for the other one to complete a task prior to moving into its space. With RapidPlan, manufacturers can increase productivity by putting additional robots on a job.
Interference zones, which limit robots from moving too close to other robots, are not needed with RapidPlan because the software releases the robot space reservations as soon as they are completed, allowing robots to work simultaneously and next to each other, picking and placing parts within close proximity. Thus, the required cell footprint can be significantly shrunk, Realtime Robotics said.
While it might seem logical that adding a second robot to an operation would double throughput, companies typically only see about a 28-30% overall improvement, according to Realtime Robotics. In the past, the use of additional robots made programming much more complicated to account for interlocks.
“With RapidPlan, one robot already starts moving while the other robot is going out. And, sometimes, the robots are even able to pick simultaneously. In that case, you’re saving a lot of time. So that’s how we got great results and are now going into production,” Fenoll said.
During testing, Schaeffler was able to nearly double throughput with the use of a second robot and RapidPlan, far exceeding its initial goal of a 60% increase. The software negated the chance of robots striking each other, without complicating the programming layers.
System integrators often have to use a range of simulation platforms and tools that are specific to the brands of robot being used. RapidPlan is designed to be robot manufacturer agnostic, which RapidPlan said allows companies to streamline their cell commissioning process.
In the past, operators wouldn’t know for sure if the simulated actions would match up correctly to reality, meaning that rigorous and manual testing was needed. Schaeffler discovered that with RapidPlan, it was able to quickly simulate the robot cell, gaining a holistic cell simulation that made it easy to plan out how the robots would move, with the simulation software being the same as what powered the actual robot actions.
Schaeffler’s NPC unit is using RapidPlan as a simulation tool and will further evaluate the technology in production as a potential tool for SMB. The company plans to put RapidPlan to work in a project using three robots to build a bearing unit.
The goal is to validate the technology in various applications, such as multi-robot material handling and assembly, in the second quarter of 2023.
Founded in 2017, Realtime Robotics and its 65 employees— more than half of whom are engineers—has primarily focused on the automotive and logistics spaces, such as spot welding and mixed-case palletizing. However, RapidPlan is designed to solve challenges across a variety of different industries and applications, the supplier noted.
The technology empowers companies to automate more processes by removing engineering complexity and reducing cycle time, lowering overall expenses, and significantly improving return on investment, according to Realtime. And, the company added, its software allows industrial robots to be deployed, updated and/or redeployed with minimal programming, both among people and in areas that have traditionally been cost prohibitive to deploy such solutions.
Since launching RapidPlan in June 2022, Realtime Robotics has been busy on a variety of fronts. Recent successes include contract awards with Mitsubishi and Kawasaki, completing an additional funding round, and integration with Siemens’ Process Simulate. And the company said it has been named an official supplier for BMW, which will use it to control robotic 3D-scanning of vehicles.
For more information about Realtime Robotics, visit: www.rtr.ai or call 617-302-6330. For more information about Schaeffler, visit www.schaeffler.com or call 803-548-8500.
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