Predefined paths and inflexible processes: in the factories of the future, those days will be long gone. Mobile units are moving into production halls. After all, a production system can only respond quickly to changes if it is flexible. And this is exactly what it comes down to. We never lose sight of our goal to enable extremely versatile production on an industrial scale with the aid of mobility. Because, at the end of the day, customers are looking for individuality.
Want your favorite granola without raisins? That has been possible for a long time. Want to wait while your shoes are made for you right before your eyes just the way you want them? It won’t be long before that’s possible. What about a green car with sports seats, red stitching, patterned interior trim and an electric motor? The demand for customized products is even having an impact on large production lines in the automotive industry. “If I needed to adapt a car production line to accommodate a new model right now, it would take weeks. Mobility and modular production make it possible to reconfigure things in a matter of minutes,” says the German computer and robotics scientist Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard.
The so-called matrix body shop concept of KUKA is one example of this. A production hall featuring the matrix concept is characterized by individual robotic cells. They are interlinked using freely programmable logistics for the components to be manufactured. Each cell can be freely configured. Automotive components are transported to and fro between the cells on unmanned carriers known as Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) in order to undergo machining. A clear distinction is made between transport and manufacturing tasks. This paves the way for shorter product cycles and diversified product portfolios. “If I decide to incorporate mobility into my production hall, I will need far less space, I will cut costs and, above all else, I will be far more flexible,” says Burgard, summarizing the benefits of mobility. The scientist heads up the research group for Autonomous Intelligent Systems at the Albert-Ludwig University in Freiburg, Germany.
These developments require a radical new way of thinking. If you enter “quick and flexible” on a search engine, you may well find this autocompleted to “quick response and flexible manufacturing”. It is clear that “quick and flexible” are key attributes of tomorrow’s production systems. The issues that have been on people’s minds for years are now taking shape in the workshop. In its article on intelligent factories, the German government regards it as decisive for success that it is no more costly to make an individual product, for example a personalized red case containing a USB stick, than the same piece time and again by way of serial production. “The costs caused by all aspects of the process must be kept as low as possible. The competitive pressure is enormous. You need effective solutions in order to keep pace. Ultimately, you want the flexibility of manual production and the effectiveness of robot-based production. Imagine a situation in which two components are screwed together while they are being transported from one work station to the next. That saves a huge amount of time. And you need mobility to achieve it,” says Burgard, explaining the correlations.
Mobility as a decisive factor
Mobile robot systems that do not simply transport workpieces but also process them, while allowing direct collaboration with humans at the same time, will therefore be an integral part of the versatile, flexible factory of the future. Mobile units will equip robots with other tools in passing, quickly enabling them to carry out new tasks or process other workpieces.
One of the industries that will benefit most from mobility is the logistics sector. “Mobility is one of the determinant factors for success in this industry. Quite simply because products constantly have to be fetched from racks throughout these huge halls and brought to packing stations.” Mobility expert Dominik Jäkle from the Switzerland-based automation company Swisslog says: “We can achieve a great deal in logistics using mobile solutions. Equipment that is permanently anchored to the floor of production shops will become a thing of the past. On the contrary, we need elements that can be set up quickly and easily and also moved to another part of the production process from one day to the next. Add to that the fact that manufacturing sequences can be expanded effortlessly in this manner, and entire systems can be relocated much more efficiently.”
One thing is certain: a conveyor that is anchored to the floor operates extremely reliably and is highly productive. However, it is also extremely inflexible. Such equipment will nevertheless not disappear from industrial halls entirely. At the same time, mobile platforms will find their way into production processes so as to meet the needs of each individual customer in a quick and flexible manner.