Jonny Williamson talks to the team behind Meggitt’s Closed Loop Adaptive Assembly Workbench, the ground-breaking first step in a project to improve production output, quality, flexibility and traceability in component assembly.
The Meggitt Modular Modifiable Manufacturing (M4) project combines existing and future technologies in the hopes of creating intelligent, responsive environments, revolutionising component assembly and transforming operators’ working conditions.
Central to this vision is the intelligent workbench, known as the Closed Loop Adaptive Assembly Workbench (CLAAW), representing a crucial first step towards bringing M4 to life.
The brainchild of chief technical officer, Keith Jackson, and graduate programme engineer, Tom Newman, and designed by a Meggitt graduate team at Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), CLAAW’s smart features and innovative technologies could bring about radical changes to component assembly.
Designed to initially assemble an eBrake actuator, manufactured by the Coventry-based Meggitt Aircraft Braking Systems (MABS), the workbench combines smart flexible fixturing to make assembly quicker, easier and more efficient; laser projection to identify assembly steps; and data capture to allow CLAAW to instantly switch between different products, supporting batch sizes of one.
The three-year Meggitt Modular Modifiable Manufacturing (M4) project aims to address the challenge of how to deal with the assembly of low volume, high value products that don’t lend themselves to automation.
Working with partners including the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (Sheffield); Manufacturing Technology Centre (Coventry); Innovate UK, and IBM, M4 looks to reinvent the factories of the future with ideas and technologies, transforming a traditional factory into a responsive and efficient environment that optimises flow.
“We use one of the smallest, lightest off-the-shelf lasers as part of the intelligent workbench, to guide operators through operations; highlighting where a component needs to be placed, verifying its orientation using machine vision, and showing where, bolts for example, need to be inserted, and using two devices allows us to work in three dimensions,” explains Newman.
Intelligent torque wrench
The team has also been exploring the productivity and traceability gains afforded by the use of smart tooling, such as an intelligent torque wrench, which can be wirelessly programmed to tighten a bolt to a specific torque.
“Having to report that a bolt has been accurately tightened represents an unnecessary step in an operator’s workflow. If the smart tool could automatically detect that, the system could move to the next step itself, allowing the operator to concentrate on more complex, dexterous operations,” describes graduate programme engineer, Gevorg Hovakimyan.
According to Hovakimyan, there are other advantages to employing smart tools.
Operational data from the intelligent torque wrench is fed back into CLAAW, and data analytics allows the detection of any issues in the product, tools, assembly process or CLAAW itself at the earliest onset.
“The more contextual information you have surrounding the use of CLAAW and its tools, the more you can learn and improve operations,” he adds.
The team conducted initial demonstrations of CLAAW to both MABS and the Meggitt Applied Research & Technology (AR&T) Board earlier this year, and it is now working with operators to prepare the workbench for a tour of Meggitt’s UK factories.
The response garnered by the prototype system so far has been nothing short of effusive, says Jackson, with many keen to see it installed throughout Meggitt’s national – and global – assembly lines.
“Crucially, people are keen to see CLAAW embedded prominently in the main stream where everyone can see and engage with it, not tucked away in some dusty corner,” he says.
This represents CLAAW II; bringing the workbench into the Meggitt factory environment and developing further technologies to work alongside it.
“We are being very careful from a technological perspective because you can festoon something with technology which isn’t actually useful,” Jackson adds.
A key factor for the projects ongoing development is data integration. The workbench already has data capture features, feeding information back from operator to design engineer and operator to operator.
“Data can be collected as a component moves through its manufacturing lifecycle, so if there’s an issue further down the assembly line, or the part comes back for repair, that data can be instantly retrieved.
“Data analysis also plays an important role in helping us to predict why a part may be rejected later in the process and proactively taking steps to address that,” Newman explains.
The team is also exploring further system improvements including integrating gesture recognition, enabling software to recognise operators’ gestures and remove the need to swipe a screen or touch keys with greasy or full hands.
CLAAW also offers the opportunity to advance the concept of worker development, especially in regards to differentiating delivery as operators’ gain experience with a particular product.
New, unskilled operators are provided with detailed, prescriptive commands supported by frequent directions via the laser pointer.
As the operator becomes more skilled, such prescriptive instructions could become frustrating, so the commands are scaled back and progress is monitored more discreetly through photometry.
“This could not only prove vital in terms of maintaining employee engagement, but help to more easily disseminate information or changes to assembly processes.
“Written messages can easily be discarded or go unread, bringing process changes directly to operator screens is far more beneficial,” says Jackson.
Jackson’s ultimate vision is for operators to be supported in much the same way as surgeons during complex medical procedures.
“When operating, a surgeon has a team of people handing them suction, a scalpel, thread, swabs and so on, helping to make them as smart and efficient as possible in what they are doing,” says the CTO.
“When combined with our smart boxes – containing all the individual components required to build a part, I can imagine lightweight collaborative robots supporting operators. One holding the product at exactly the right orientation for each individual worker, be they tall, short, left-handed, right-handed, etc., and another passing parts to them in the correct order.”
To many this still sounds like science fiction, but Jackson assures me that it is happening; with the advanced manufacturing landscape of tomorrow being realised today thanks to CLAAW and the wider M4 project.