Mobile robots are made for flexible manufacturing


With the right design and ancillary equipment, Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) can perform many manufacturing tasks with great efficiency, writes Frazer Watson, VP-Sales UK/Ireland at mobile robot designer and manufacturer iFollow.

The UK is currently the ninth largest manufacturing nation in the world. Overall, the country’s industrial sector has increased by 1.4% a year since 1948, according to recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) findings. The ONS attributes the sustained growth to a better quality; more skilled workforce; a shift in production from low to high productivity goods; and improvements in automation and technology.

One of the most significant developments within automation in recent years must surely be the adoption of AMRs within factories and assembly plants. These easy to implement internal transport devices can take over time consuming and tiring transport jobs within plants allowing staff to concentrate on more productive roles.

Manufacturing is constantly changing. New products continue to enter the market all the time and they are increasingly made using automation. Many manufacturers are selling direct to consumer adding further responsibility to warehouse operations that also feed production lines, often on a just-in-time basis, to achieve the goal of maximum production efficiency. 

Changes to the market can come at any time and manufacturers need the flexibility to adapt. Sometimes these changes can be seismic – such as the automotive sector’s shift from internal combustion engine cars to electric vehicles. Manufacturing continues to spread around the world, with many markets outsourcing to countries where production comes with lower costs, while developing countries increase their own consumer spending. 

However recent turbulence in supply chains is driving a move to near shoring as manufacturers seek to mitigate supply chain risk and secure domestic markets. Doing so while keeping costs competitive however means finding new ways to become more efficient in manufacturing.

AMRs offer such a solution as there are a number of duties within a plant that, with the right design and ancillary equipment, they can perform efficiently.

A mobile robot can act as a supply shuttle to transport loads, parts or modules to the different stations of an assembly line. Interfaced to an ERP system, the fleet management system controlling the AMRs will be able to answer all calls for parts using Kanban tickets.

An AMR can transport finished and semi-finished products according to needs, taking items from the work station hailing the robot to the required destination, which might be Goods Out for finished parts or the next work station for the semi-finished products.

Assembly kits can be efficiently prepared with the help of mobile robots to further maximise staff productivity for collaborative kitting and order preparation. Connection to an ERP allows a wide choice of cooperation with staff.

Robots engineered to work between temperature extremes, such as iFollow’s range, are also suited to strained environments and clean rooms with controlled temperatures.

Our robots can move between environments with temperatures as low as -25°C to zones up to +40°C. Furthermore, the factory floor does not need to be perfect, our robots are designed to overcome such issues.

Many manufacturers will have bespoke requirements, so it is important to be able to provide out-of-format frames to carry items, specific to their needs and to adapt the robot’s lifting platform – making them highly flexible and responsive to changing demands.

For a successful mobile robot solution, AMRs must work seamlessly in the required environment. To achieve this goal, the supplier should work with the manufacturer to achieve the complete integration of AMRs with the manufacturer’s automated handling solutions. This approach will include flow optimisation and simulation analysis to properly size the number of robots to the task, ensuring a fast and efficient return on investment. 

In factories where everything is digitally interconnected, iFollow AMRs will follow the direction of the WMS (Warehouse Management System), via a supervision software called Mycelium, which can be implemented on any type of computer. Importantly, the web application can also be consulted on a smartphone. 

This allows users to program their robots from ‘elementary bricks’. With a few clicks, the locations, the missions assigned to the robots, as well as the scheduling of tasks, can be modified. Connectable to all WMS and ERP systems on the market, Mycelium is a highly efficient tool for transport and order preparation. The user-friendly and intuitive fleet management software can support up to 200 robots and facilitates robot-to-robot collaboration/communication. This means that in an interlinked fleet, robots can share useful information with each other.

Manufacturers seeking to ensure their staff remain where they are most productive with factory operations, should look further into the possibilities of cooperating with mobile robots to provide a more productive, cost effective, efficient operation and agile production environment.

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