Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit 2019: Cobots, Guided Vehicles & End of Line Solutions

My morning roundtables at this year's Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit included discussions around 'Autonomous Mobile Robotics', 'Cobots versus Standard Robots', and 'End of Line Automation'.

Manufacturing Automation - Industrial Automation - Beverages Factory - Stock - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
When it comes to manufacturing automation, SMEs often face barriers typically not felt within large multinationals and OEMs – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

It is a time of great change for UK manufacturing as businesses respond to the convergence of powerful trends in labour supply, supply chain consolidation and optimising the balance between quality and cost.

This year’s sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit tackled those challenges head-on, helping the 80 senior manufacturing executives in attendance to define:

  • What parts of their production process are best suited to automation, and what kind
  • Where their industry peers are seeing the greatest automation opportunities and successes
  • How the technology landscape has evolved, and continues to, and how best to take advantage

The summit took place at Aston Villa Football Club in Birmingham and was deftly chaired by Duncan McFarlane, Professor of Industrial Information Engineering at University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM).

In his introduction, McFarlane noted that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) faced barriers typically not felt within large multinationals and OEMs – a point which ran through much of the day’s roundtable conversations.

These barriers were both physical (not having appropriate skills internally to move forward, and not having the necessary funds to finance the initial investment and operating costs), as well as psychological (feeling unsure of the possible applications or benefits, and being uncertain of future digital standards).

The sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit gathered together 80 senior manufacturing executives - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
The sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit gathered together 80 senior manufacturing executives – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

While some may challenge the reality of these challenges, there is certainly no question that many companies still perceive automation and robotics to be expensive and complex. That’s the primary driver behind the IfMS’s Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring initiative.

Low-cost off-the-shelf automation

IfM’s shoestring project aims to increase digital capabilities throughout an organisation by using low-cost, easily accessible off-the-shelf components.

There are several challenges associated with that vision which need to be addressed:

  • Priorities – How can the digitalisation and automation need of a business be analysed and classified?
  • Ruggedness – Can consumer-grade technology (such as GoPro cameras, Raspberry Pi computers and virtual assistants like Amazon’s ‘Alexa’) fulfil the needs of an industrial environment?
  • KPIs – How can off-the-shelf technologies be implemented successfully?

IfM, with support from industry partners, is helping to address these issues through a five-step process:

  1. Digital requirement assessment – What are the needs of a small manufacturer?
  2. Solutions development – How can available technologies, algorithms and software be combined into accessible solutions?
  3. Prototyping/Pilot testing of the developed technologies and methods in partners SMEs
  4. Incremental integration of the solutions
  5. Engagement / Dissemination – application of the approach in a variety of companies and labs

Autonomous Mobile Robotics (AMR)

Understanding the upside of improved product or material flows, even within a dynamic environment, is key to maintaining lean and efficient site.

any warehouse vehicle can become an automated guided vehicle (AGV) by installing a robotic module - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Autonomous Mobile Robotics are now so intelligent they can be integrated into a factory or warehouse with little disruption – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Autonomous Mobile Robotics (AMRs) are now so intelligent they can be integrated into a factory or warehouse with little disruption to footprint and human traffic.

Benefits cited include increased throughput, reduced machine dwell time, decreased errors, improved material traceability and enabling human workers to focus on tasks that require complex or more value-added tasks.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) have been successfully in use for many years, and though they offer many advantages in terms of material flow, they require the installation of a mapping grid, tapes magnets or laser beacons within/on the floor, alongside other potential costly site modifications. This means the technology is fairly simplistic and can’t deviate from the paths set.

However, AMRs – sometimes called Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles – are self-mapping, adaptive and are reportedly easy to implement and manage within an existing workforce and equipment. In this way, AMR’s almost become a collaborative technology, according to discussion leader Barry Graham – Field Application Manager for Robotic Technologies at Omron.

Unlike other robots that can only follow a fixed path, or aren’t centrally co-ordinated, many AMRs can detect obstacles without having to wait for a specific path to clear.

One issue our group discussed was businesses looking to overcome workers having to continually leave their stations to fetch and retrieve materials from stores by delivering pallets of material to each cell in bulk throughout the day. However, that creates its own issues.

Pump-trucking materials en-mass to replenish line-side operations leaves pallets of material cluttering the area and poses a potential safety risk, noted Graham. Rather than doing that every 60 minutes, AMRs allow that same operation to be carried out more frequently, in a much more managed and safe manner.

Furthermore, the development of heavy-duty lift mechanisms is enabling AMRs to operate over multiple floors, something impossible to achieve with traditional AGVS. Similar developments are also reportedly underway to enable the vehicles to carry heavier payloads.

“AMRs can also reduce configuration costs because the mobile robots can very quickly adjust to new workflows. The greater business benefit over the long-term isn’t necessarily productivity, but greater operational flexibility and agility delivered via these technologies,” Graham concluded.


Cobots vs Standard Robots

At £4,990, UK start-up Automata’s Eva will be the lowest priced cobot yet when it ships later this year – image courtesy of Automata.
At £4,990, UK start-up Automata’s Eva will reportedly be the lowest priced cobot yet when it ships in 2019 – image courtesy of Automata.

Small, lightweight, affordably and designed to be inherently safe for close human operation, cobots (collaborative robots) are an ideal entry point for many companies looking to embrace robotics.

Countering the inherent expensive, inflexible, complex and potentially dangerous nature of traditional industrial robots, cobots combine the fine motor skills and judgement of humans with the force and precision of robotics.

Yet, many businesses are unsure if health & safety standards have been introduced that will impact their use of cobots, and as a result, are holding back on investing in them.

Despite soft skins and force limiting sensors that keep the energy of any collision at a safe level, risk assessments do still need to be carried out, noted discussion leader, Ed Preston, Global Automation Leader at GKN Aerospace.

Safeguarding the operator against potential hazards needs to be considered from the start, with new guidance on cobots laid out in 2016’s ISO/TS 15066. The document detail how to design and risk assess both the cobot and the workspace shared with humans, with restricting movement, speed and payload critical parts of that process.

These ISO standards are widely seen as being reasonable, if conservative, but they haven’t kept pace with technological progress, with many calling for the creation of a more up-to-date or future-proofed version.

Learn more about cobots and how they are already being used in industry via the links below: 


End of Line Automation

Camera assisted conveyor systems and next-generation arms/vacuum systems now allow greater use of pick and place technologies as orientation, rigidity and density of products are no longer barriers to adoption.

There are increasing demands for faster lines that require multiple robots and sequenced motion axes. These technologies increasingly need to be combined on one control platform to be fully synchronised, internet-enabled and fit within limited spaces in existing factories.

It’s no secret that efficiency is the key to manufacturing, noted discussion leader Martin Walder, VP Industry at Schneider Electric. According to Walder, the modern manufacturing line stands as a testament to the power of technology.

“The modern manufacturing line stands as testament to the power of technology. Production takes place at an incredibly fast pace, in some instances running lines on multiple shifts around the clock.

“Manufacturers, more than any industry, cannot afford to risk downtime or machine failure. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other technologies can then identify when performance starts to deteriorate, even slightly, so that interventions can be made before any notable impact occurs”.

When it comes to the picking and packaging area, the biggest drivers cited include availability of labour, output variances, quality, reliability, hygiene and of course, driving unit costs down.

For those manufacturers operating with a highly varied product mix, Walder noted that if automation doesn’t fit with your current business model, does that model need changing? Could some products be standardised in order to more easily automate processes and gain efficiencies?

More than 50,000 croissants and 25,000 chocolate breads are produced every hour in La Petite Bretonne’s ultramodern factory – a feat totally unacheiveable without automation, as the company’s founder, Serge Bohec, explains: