Robot’s agility offers material handling opportunities

Automated mobile robots are finding a home in manufacturing operations. A new option, autonomous mobile robots (AMR), offer the combination of flexibility, safety, and cost-effectiveness.


One of the challenges of automating material transportation is the changing nature of most manufacturing floors. Agile manufacturing and fast-changing market demands mean plant set-up is often dynamic, with new production cells and processes that must be supported—sometimes with little advanced notice. People, equipment, pallets, and power cords can appear in what used to be open passageways, which means automated material transportation must be flexible and easily adaptable, not to mention safe for operation around employees. That flexibility also means that automated material handling must be easy to learn, program, deploy, and redeploy in-house to ensure that the chosen approach can cost-effectively keep up-to-date with requirements.An autonomous mobile robot works on the plant floor in NewForm's plant in Serravalle Sesia, Italy. Image: Courtesy Mobile Industrial Robots.

Large facilities with fixed, repetitive processes traditionally have incorporated automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to move materials, using fixed routes that are guided by permanent wires, magnetic strips, or sensors embedded in the plant floor. But if manufacturing processes change, the facility must be updated. Even if people or material temporarily block the AGV’s route, it simply stops until the way is cleared.

A new option is an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) that offers the combination of flexibility, safety, and cost-effectiveness that allows companies of nearly any size to automate and optimize material handling.

Easy integration, high flexibility

An AMR navigates via sensors, cameras, and sophisticated software that is built into the robot, without the need for external sensors or guides. Once the robot has learned its surroundings (either by having a facility blueprint uploaded to it or by being piloted around the plant so it can develop its own map), the robot recognizes its surroundings and can take the most efficient route to its destination autonomously, safely avoiding obstacles and people much like a GPS system in today’s cars.

Because companies don’t need to alter their facility with wires or sensors, AMRs can be deployed within hours, with no disruption to production and no additional costs. This offers a fast return on investment, often with payback in as little as a year.

AMRs typically are characterized by an intuitive software interface that gives owners the flexibility to easily redeploy the robots to different processes or facility layouts. That allows AMRs to support changing business needs and agile manufacturing processes, similar to contract employees who can be moved to different tasks as needed without additional costs being incurred.

Human collaboration

AMRs can be used in nearly any situation where employees are spending time pushing carts or making deliveries, allowing companies to automate these low-value tasks so employees can focus on higher-value activities. Magna-Power, a New Jersey-based manufacturer of power products, deployed two AMRs to move parts and assemblies from the stockroom and through its vertically integrated manufacturing floor. This has freed the equivalent of three full-time employees, who can now focus on the tasks they were hired to do.

“The purpose of the robot is not to replace employees, but to make them more efficient with their time,” said Grant Pitel, Magna-Power’s vice president of engineering. “Now they can focus on the things that we can’t get a robot to do.”

According to Pitel, the robots have made stockroom operations more efficient. Instead of waiting on long lines of employees trying to deliver or access parts, stockroom workers can concentrate on assembling the kits required for each customized power supply. They simply load up the robot and move on to kitting the next project.

Dependability ensures efficiency

AMRs can perform the monotonous and repetitive tasks of material transportation without breaks that can disrupt the assembly process. NewForm, a manufacturer of Italian-designed bath faucets and fittings, sees these benefits with its two mobile robots.

“Now our lines are active on a 24/7 basis, because they are automatically loaded and unloaded,” said Damiano Marconi, NewForm’s technical assistant. Moreover, the AMRs are integrated with NewForm’s production planning system and provide a real-time overview of materials.

“We can guarantee a real-time production control. The very simple integration software can easily communicate with both our machine tools and our data server, so we can easily track every piece, its position, and condition in real-time,” Marconi said.

A safer solution for workers

With AMRs moving materials from one location to another, factory workers are less likely to be injured from lifting heavy products. The payload of AMRs can vary dramatically, but many plants with dynamic environments, narrow or crowded passageways, or where the robot must navigate through doors or elevators, find that less bulky robots, with payloads around 200 kg (about 440 lbs), are ideal. The robots often can be fitted with a hook attachment to tow larger payloads if needed, but without the need for a large robot that is less nimble and that takes up significant space in plant floors and passages. AMRs are highly maneuverable, with crash avoidance systems that reduce the chance of a spill and safety systems that allow them to navigate carefully around people, even in unpredictable situations.

“As a power supply company, we are very concerned about safety. We put the robot through its paces,” Pitel said. “We jumped right in front of the robot making sure it would stop, and it is pretty amazing what he can avoid.”

AMRs bridge the gap between legacy AGVs—that are typically too expensive and inflexible for today’s manufacturing needs—and manual material handling that wastes valuable employee time and productivity. With the latest sensors, cameras, and software, AMRs are easy to deploy and redeploy, and can pay for themselves in less than a year.

Ed Mullen is the vice president of sales - Americas, Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR)

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