Over the past decade, the adoption of collaborative robots and automation technologies in general have allowed manufacturers to produce more efficiently and safely – freeing up manpower from repetitive or heavy tasks, to more value adding roles. But there had been a missing piece to that puzzle, which is now being filled by autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and the mobile robotic equipment (MRE) that supports them.
At its core, an AMR is a motorized cart for transporting things. It’s made special, thanks to sensors and machine vision that help it move throughout a facility without human intervention. It is made even more useful thanks to the various types of MREs that it can be fitted with, such as carts, lifter or roller modules. These MREs optimize the AMR function to specific workplace needs. e.g. using a cart can increase the payload that the AMR can transport, or a roller solutions can enable loads to be safely and efficiently transferred between the AMR and a static conveyor system.
Safety and efficiency in the factory
In the past, when parts and material were moved from point A to point B, it was done manually – either by forklifts or by simply carrying them from one station to the next. If there was no one dedicated or available to move these assets, bottlenecks occurred, which typically resulted in lost time and, potentially, lost revenue.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you walk in many industrial facilities is everything is bright yellow. This is so that forklift operators and staff can see and avoid hazards. In fact signage and layout is put in place to keep forklifts out of the space where people are.
While safety signage is helpful, the nature of driving and shuffling product is very repetitive in nature, so an incident from time to time is somewhat unavoidable, particularly if the operator is tired or distracted.
Autonomous Mobile Robots
From the offset, AMRs were designed as collaborative robots – to work safely with and around people. They serve as an investment for companies to mitigate risk, and because they reduce the chance for incidents and damage, insurance companies are taking note.
An obvious pushback on whether AMRs truly can replace forklifts is the payload capacity. MRE manufacturers understand this and are working to develop top modules that greatly increase the weight and size of what AMRs can move.
Top options – Mobile Robotic Equipment for AMRs
ROEQ, an MRE solution provider based in Denmark, is one of the companies that is delivering on the need for top modules that can carry more and just do more in general. ROEQ launched in 2017 after following the journey of MiR, which is also headquartered in Denmark.
Michael Hansen, a founder and the managing director at ROEQ, says that he and his fellow co-founders all have backgrounds in mechanical engineering and started their careers within the medical industry with a focus on quality, robustness and high performance. Based on their interest in automation and in MiR specifically, they identified a need for “standard”, quality tested, top modules that could expand the advantages AMRs were bringing to market.
In terms of the types of MREs that ROEQ has developed, since the company’s launch about five years ago, Hansen says there are three main categories: cart solutions, lifters and roller modules.
Cart solutions offer the ability to move heavier payloads as well as bigger parts and materials (see the ROEQ Cart500 and the ROEQ TMS-C1500 solutions). Lifters raise and lower a pallet for easy mounting and dismounting, expanding the size and shape of items that can be transported (see examples here) . And roller solutions ensure safe transfer of goods between an AMR and a static conveyor system. Additional safety is added, when paired with the company’s GuardCom technology – a communication bridge that relies on sensors rather than WiFi, which can be unstable in industrial environments.
Automation software focus – safety and easier set up
The top modules that ROEQ produce, are just one part of the company’s overall solution approach, which unsurprisingly includes new safety updates. “All our solutions have safety in focus to protect both the goods being transported or transferred as well as the personnel working with or nearby” shared Michael. “In addition it is important to ensure that ROEQ solutions are as straight forward as possible for system integrators to install.” He adds ” This has led to the development of our own software called ROEQ Assist which ensures a quicker and more consistent set up, and includes pre-set missions to help get up and running quicker.”
Injecting Industry 4.0
“In the near future, we will also include the ability to track parts and materials as they move through a facility by adding, for example, a barcode reader.
“The key point here is that all our top modules hold the interface to the customers crate, package or pallet. Therefore, it is natural that the MRE provides information on, for example, ID of the goods to an overall ERP or WMS system,” Hansen says.
“Industry 4.0 is a big driver for innovation at ROEQ,” he continues. “Think of an old-fashioned kind of company where their crates are on stationary conveyor belts. Once they take them to a pallet jack, they’re out of the system. With our technology, we’ll be able to follow those crates, parts or materials all the way through the manufacturing process out to the warehouse.”
Clearly, these new areas of automation are serving a useful function, but perhaps most important, they are tackling the persistent challenge of finding and retaining quality labor. Not only do AMRs and MREs reduce the need for manual laborers, but they are also getting people excited about working in manufacturing. More advanced positions on the factory floor are now important to be filled and offer opportunities to train and to specialize, such as machine operators with robotic programming skills.
Future Automation Growth
Unemployment is relatively low, and there just aren’t enough people out there to take the unskilled manual jobs. In addition, the cost of labor has gone up considerably, and people just don’t want to take manual labor or order-picking jobs. But offer the opportunity to work with and operate robotic solutions and the factory role has a new interest, with an employer that is seen as more modern and dynamic – moving with the times.
So, for the companies that invest in these automated solutions, the days of the dirty, dangerous factory are gone. Instead, they’re opening the doors to safer, modern facilities, something that is highly attractive to the next generation of manufacturers.
Here you can see a case study example of how TE Connectivity in Hungary benefitted from installing AMRs and ROEQ MRE solutions.
Thanks to Abbe Miller for text used in this article. Original article can be seen here