In an age of short product lifecycles and an increasing demand for customised solutions, if you’re a manufacturer, you need to be very agile to remain competitive. For instance, you might need to make products down to a lot size of one as simply and cost-efficiently as in mass production; or to change or update your production line at short notice. One key solution is a greater co-operation between people and machinery, leading to improved efficiency and more flexibility in the design of the production line.
At Omron, we’ve been focusing on how robots and machines can interact seamlessly. This will enable production runs to be altered quickly and easily to allow for fluctuating lot sizes, and will also reduce the need for workers to carry out repetitive tasks and heavy lifting. Simple tasks, such as transportation of materials, can be left to interactive machines that can understand (and therefore avoid) people’s movements. One example is a robot that can deliver packages to a fixed location whilst avoiding people or obstacles in its path. It identifies its own position by comparing the results from a laser scanner with an onboard map.
So, if you’re considering tapping into the benefits of a mobile robot, what are the key issues you should consider? Here are five important questions you should ask:
1. Can it be rapidly installed and adapted?
Conveyors have been used for transporting goods at factories and warehouses for over 100 years. That was a great help when manufacturers were producing a large number of identical products every day for a long period. However, in today’s faster-paced markets, they are expensive to install and very difficult to modify when products or processes change.
About a decade ago, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) were introduced as an alternative to conveyors for material handling. However, these still need a predefined path, using either magnets, lines on the floor, or beacons on the walls. Now there’s a more flexible solution, which uses the latest mobile robots, called Autonomous Intelligent Vehicle (AIV). These robots can move about more freely and can be easily reprogrammed for different tasks.
2. Can it work safely with people?
It’s essential that your mobile robot can work in the same environment as your workers and can even collaborate with them on tasks. You therefore need to ensure that it has the most advanced and appropriate technology, so that it can move safely around people. You should also check whether it complies with domestic and international safety regulations.
3. Can it work collaboratively in a fleet?
In most cases, several mobile robots will be working within a production facility. They must be able to work together well – so you’ll need a fleet management system that will automatically allocate tasks to each robot in the most efficient way to maximise your investment. This should enable you to minimise the number of robots needed by coordinating them so that they share the tasks.
The fleet management system manages two key elements:
- It controls the traffic so that the mobile robots don’t block each other’s paths or wait too long for another robot to pass them.
- An effective system will allocate the tasks efficiently and can even plan ahead and predict which nearby robot will be available to work on the next job. It’s important to manage the time needed for each robot to recharge its battery, to ensure that the work isn’t interrupted during peak times.
4. Can it be easily adapted to meet your specific needs?
Mobile robots must be able to be adapted for different types of jobs. For example, a robot might be used to move items from a pick-up location to a drop-off location. It might then need to attach itself to a movable cart and transfer that from one place to another. Similarly, if it has a collaborative arm, it might be used to pick up individual items. Or it might be deployed so that it can receive items and load them onto a conveyor belt.
Therefore, it’s important that it can be easily customised to meet your differing needs.
5. Can it run reliably worldwide?
Once you’ve successfully installed a mobile robot system at one of your facilities, you might want to duplicate this in other worldwide locations. If so, you might want to purchase the robots locally and get professional help with their implementation and with technical support after the installation.
Your vendor can play an extremely valuable role in helping you to combine their mobile robots with other automation equipment – such as arm robots, controllers and switches. This will enable you to create a total solution for your company.
The world of manufacturing continues to change. We’re now entering a new phase in which machines are working more interactively with people. At Omron, we’re therefore developing solutions that involve greater collaboration between machines and people. The new generation of mobile robots will enable production sites to be much more agile and flexible, with the ability to adjust rapidly to meet changing consumer needs. This in turn will enable manufacturers to be more responsive, more productive and ultimately more profitable.