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A Quantum Jump in the Flexibility of Automation: The New Generation of Mobile Robots

By Denise Ebenhoech, Regional Head of Advanced Robotic Applications, KUKA Robotics

Denise Ebenhoech, Regional Head of Advanced Robotic Applications, KUKA Robotics

We have been conditioned to think of machinery as fixed and immobile since the advent of the assembly line. While platforms moved around the factory, they were typically anchored to the floor and followed the pre-planned path of an induction loop. Some robots had the ability to move, but they were largely limited to back and forth motion on rails and hid behind safety fences.

That approach has proven successful throughout the history of mass production. Today’s manufacturers, however, find themselves faced with a new set of challenges and searching for more innovative solutions to meet growing competition from a tightly connected global market, demands for highly individualized products, and the need for shorter cycle times.

Until the last few years, mobile platforms were available only as so-called automatic guided vehicles (AGVs). But new technology is freeing these platforms from their former limitations and creating a new means of conveyance: autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Sensors on these vehicles scan the surrounding environment and relay the gathered data to intelligent software, which processes it and guides the AMR throughout the labyrinth of the of the factory floor. This means the platform is no longer tethered to one spot. You want to change the route? Simply reprogram the robot.

"We can now concentrate on the production process and seamlessly integrate the autonomous mobile robot into it"

In addition to smart navigation, some platforms, like the KUKA KMP 1500 (KMP = KUKA Mobile Platform), provide even more flexibility with the incorporation of omnidirectional wheels. This leading-edge technology enables you to turn on the spot and execute precise movements in any direction that your application calls for: straight ahead, backwards, sideways, diagonal, etc. This versatile adaptation to the surrounding environment dramatically increases the number of processes you can automate and opens up a world of possibilities and valuable floor space.

These recent advances are not limited to platforms. The introduction of so-called collaborative robots, that allow the device to operate alongside a worker without the protection of a safety fence, has eliminated many past restrictions and changed the way we look at them. Some collaborative robots, like the KUKA LBR iiwa, are designed with enhanced sensitivity that allows them to perform even the most delicate assembly tasks, such as inserting flexible hoses onto fittings and meshing gears into their assemblies, without damaging the parts. The development of a seventh axis on these robots has enhanced their ability to work in the tightest of spaces and dramatically opened up the number of tasks that can be automated by them.

With these two developments has come the idea to merge them. This is not an entirely new concept. There have been some tasks performed using a mix of standard industrial robots and automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), but the design and technological restrictions that came with these combinations, ultimately, limited the ability of these first mobile robot applications to succeed in the market. Now, equipped with a number of advanced technologies, this new generation of mobile robots is becoming much more successful. This generation is much easier to use in a much wider range of applications and is ready to connect with the future world of an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). But what are the applications that can now be automated with it?

These technologies have opened up a whole new mindset when approaching possible applications. Where once, production had to be built around the potential path of the automatic guided vehicle (AGV), we can now concentrate on the production process and seamlessly integrate the autonomous mobile robot (AMR) into it. Less space is needed and a deeper level of automation is possible, as the AMR’s ability to communicate with other automation equipment allows it to enter robot cells, and its omnidirectional wheels enable it to drive sideways, get closer to the conveyor belt and load and unload machines. Instead the traditional approach of having a platform confined to a fixed loop within the work environment, this advanced vehicle is able to effortlessly navigate the work environment, with the ability to safely stop when a worker impedes its path.

The autonomous mobile robot’s (AMR) flexibility also enhances our ability to justify its investment. In the past, if the cost of a robot did not equal the tasks performed, we simply didn’t buy it. But with a mobile robot solution, the number of application possibilities that would have been performed by different robots or workers dramatically increases, making it easier calculate a return on investment that warrants the outlay. As these technologies continue to open up communications between different machines and work stations, we will be to further connect our process steps, opening up new possibilities and further expanding mindsets that, even now, seem advanced and radical.

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