In order to ensure 100 percent utilization of robots in industry and to make them cost-effective for the production of ever smaller batch sizes, they need to become more flexible. This flexibility is achieved using a combination of a mobile platform, intelligent navigation software, an HRC-capable robot and a powerful controller, all tailored to the customer’s specific requirements. This solution saves space in production shops and helps to prevent accidents at work.
Alois Buchstab, Vice President Advanced Robotic Applications at KUKA, explains why mobile robot systems are extremely attractive for the factory of the future.
Mr. Buchstab, why will the factory of the future need mobile robot systems?
Because the trend is currently only in one direction: towards greater customization, more product variants, and away from rigid mass production towards personalized products that customers can configure for themselves in the digital world on their own PC – and order on the Internet from a distributor or directly from the manufacturer online. All these developments require a radical change in thinking. This is because the production of goods will need to become considerably more flexible in this new world. In order to be able to achieve this in the future, new production concepts will be required that enable extremely versatile production on an industrial scale and networked throughout the entire process chain. Production logistics will undergo fundamental change. Robots will move freely around the production facility on mobile platforms, performing a wide range of different tasks and interacting with humans.
What distinguishes mobile robot systems from automated guided vehicles that al-ready move around production shops autonomously today?
Until now, automated guided vehicles have primarily been dedicated constructions for specific customer requirements. Whether they are used for transporting aircraft components at Airbus or train components at Siemens – platforms such as the KUKA omniMove move heavy loads from one production station in a factory to the next. Mobile robot systems are a quantum leap in the evolution of these automated guided vehicles (AGVs). In conjunction with a relocatable robot, the autonomously navigating platforms will in the future be able to perform not only conventional transport tasks, but also diverse loading or unloading and machining tasks, and cooperate directly with humans. Or to put it another way: robots are “learning how to walk” and will move flexibly to the different production sections in the future, instead of standing rigidly behind safety fences. It is then no longer necessary to transport the workpiece to the robot; instead, the robot moves directly to the workpiece and machines it immediately.
Where can mobile robot systems already be used today?
This new mobility is opening up potential applications for robots in many branches of industry in which the investment costs, e.g. for operation at just one machine, were previously too high. If the robot is mobile and can move between multiple machines of the same type, reliably performing the same task at each one, the payback periods are considerably shorter.
In other words, the return on investment is shorter for a mobile robot?
That is true in many cases, but it is not the only argument for mobile robot systems. The new mobility also makes robots a viable solution wherever humans work under particularly adverse conditions, as they can relieve the burden on their human colleagues. In aircraft construction, for example, AGVs move components weighing several tonnes with millimeter precision, while robots support the skilled workers with arduous or monotonous tasks. There are many possibilities, ranging from drilling, riveting, fastening, lifting and positioning to the application of coatings, adhesive and sealants. For example, a mobile robot system can apply anti-corrosion sealant to the seams on the outer skin of an aircraft body. For stationary robots, the components are simply too big – the mobile robots, on the other hand, are flexible and move along the components at different speeds, and can also be used for other tasks, such as provision of materials. Mobile robot systems can also provide a valuable service in cleanrooms. Robots can play to their strength where the manufacture of sensitive components places the highest demands on indoor climate, cleanliness and functionality of the production system, as they do not cause any contamination, for example. Until now, they were of limited use there due to their lack of mobility and human workers had to wear uncomfortable protective suits to work in this special environment. This will change in the future.
Are mobile robot systems already being used in practice?
KUKA has developed various prototypes of mobile robot systems over the past few years, of which around 40 are currently in test operation at various companies in different sectors. Many companies have recognized the advantages of the new mobility and we have received further inquiries. The mobile robot systems will be going into series production at the end of 2017. The KMR series (KUKA Mobile Robotics) developed by KUKA for this purpose comprises all four core components that a mobile robot system requires in order to exploit its advantages to the full.