Advancements in robotics continue to reshape packaging automation, with mobile robots becoming a more common choice for tasks such as materials transport and machine loading and unloading. Is it time for you to bring autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) into your packaging operation?
Robot systems that feature an industrial robot on top of a mobile platform can help with optimization of material flow and packaging processes. Mobile robots’ ability to move around the plant floor also offers production flexibility, as the units can travel among various packaging workstations and perform relevant work at each one.
Working collaboratively with humans, mobile robots can reduce repetitive-stress injuries and alleviate fatigue-related human error, which in turn improves product quality and increases worker safety. Mobile robots also provide data — about materials movement over the course of a shift, for example — that help production planning and improve efficiency.
Packaging Digest’s exclusive Q&A on mobile robots features in-depth commentary from the following industry experts, who describe not only the state of the art but also what’s on the horizon for this technology:
• Ed Mullen, vice president of sales, Americas, for Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR)
• Denise Ebenhoech, regional head of advanced robotic applications at Kuka Robotics
• Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development at Universal Robots (UR)
What recent advancements have you seen in mobile robots for packaging operations?
Mullen: The increased flexibility of autonomous mobile robots makes them highly attractive for packaging operations and enables even a single robot to be used for myriad applications within the same facility.
For example, companies can add a collaborative robot (cobot) arm (see video here) to turn the AMR into an automatic, mobile packing station to optimize internal logistics and production flows. In fact, with a precision docking station built into a stationary table, a lightweight cobot can execute precise and specialized tasks in packaging at multiple workstations.
There’s also been a strong demand over the last year for bigger, faster, and stronger AMRs that can handle higher payloads, as well as smaller AMRs that can move through tighter spaces. Higher-payload AMRs can deliver pallet loads of packaging materials to the packaging line, as well as take full loads from the end of the line to a warehouse or truck. Lower-payload AMRs can add hooks to tow carts, or even a pallet fork to pull full pallets or multiple packages simultaneously — or conveyor bands/belts or pallet lifters to vary their applications.
One of the most significant advancements in AMRs for packaging and industry overall is the addition of AI [artificial intelligence] features for improved navigation.
With AI incorporated into the software and strategically placed cameras that function as an extended set of robot sensors, AMRs can provide optimized route planning and driving behavior. The cameras enable the robots to detect and recognize moving obstacles and react accordingly. For example, the robots will continue driving as usual if they detect a person but will park if they detect an automated guided vehicle (AGV) on its track so the AGV can drive by. The robot can also predict blocked areas or highly trafficked areas in advance and reroute instead of entering the blocked area and then rerouting.
Campbell: I believe we will see a significant growth in mobile robots being implemented in the warehousing and fulfillment industry because of all the benefits described earlier. Manufacturers that do not automate will be at a serious disadvantage to those that do. New applications that I believe we will witness soon being widely deployed are AMRs with cobot arms mounted on top of them, driving between different picking stations.
Cobots can deliver all the advantages of advanced robotic automation with none of the traditional added costs associated with robot programming, setup, and dedicated, shielded work cells. Unlike traditional industrial robots that stay hardwired in a cage, lightweight cobots are an ideal option to mount on AMRs because of the built-in, innovative force-sensing technology that makes the robot stop operating — based on risk assessment — when encountering an employee.
“The out-of-box experience” with a collaborative UR robot is typically less than an hour. That’s the time it takes an untrained operator to unpack the robot, mount it, and program the first simple tasks. The term “collaborative” not only means that humans can collaborate directly with the robots, potentially with no safety guarding between them. We also apply the term to ease of use and deployment; a robot is not truly collaborative if it’s not easy to set up and work with.
Ebenhoech: Mobile robots are getting more and more independent from fixed installations on the floor, where they have traditionally had to follow a line or rail in the ground. This has opened up a number of interesting industrial and packaging applications. Packaging operations are often challenged with bringing material to and from machines efficiently and flexibly. Modern mobile robots use a combination of sensors and software for navigation, freeing them from fixed routes and making process-step changes easier to handle.
Another advancement that is supporting space-saving drive concepts is the omnidirectional wheel. These wheels allow mobile robots to drive in any direction — forward, sideways, backwards, diagonally, turning on the spot, curves — and also from a standstill position to enable the robot to navigate in tight spaces or docking situations.
Having a mobile robot as a system, meaning that it includes an industrial robot integrated on top of a mobile platform, makes the mobile robot an even more useful tool. Packaged or to-be-packaged goods can be directly handled using the robot on the platform. This also enables the mobile robot to change packaging material, especially when it is equipped with a sensitive robot. Imagine changing a packaging roll of material with a sensitive robot that has the ability to “feel” the pin that the center of the roll fits onto.
How do these advanced systems compare to the existing standard equipment?
Ebenhoech: In packaging operations, it can difficult to know which method of transportation to and from the packing station is right for the application. Using conveyers might take too much space, and they offer little flexibility if you have to change the path of the transported good. Forklifts and/or people are a more flexible solution, but it is often tough for companies to find enough workers willing to do these repetitive and, sometimes, non-ergonomic jobs. Tuggers and lines following AGVs might take too much space or be too inflexible for path changes.
This is an area where mobile robots offer a lot of advantages. Because they are equipped with laser-scanner navigation to create paths via software and with flexible drive systems, like omnidirectional wheels, mobile robots are able to add a lot to flexibility without using a lot of floor space.
Mullen: Mobile robots without the ability to add on top modules — such as cobots, conveyor belts, and so forth — can be limited to one application. And although all AMRs are designed to work collaboratively with people by automating repetitive and injury-prone material transportation, the standard sensors and cameras on AMRs without AI aren’t able to apply data for advanced decision-making.
Without AI, the robots react the same way to all obstacles, slowing and attempting to navigate around the person or object if possible, or stopping or backing up if there is no safe way to maneuver around it. The AMR’s standard approach is appropriate in nearly every situation but, in the same way that AI is powering new capabilities for self-driving cars and intelligent drones, it is also poised to dramatically change robotics.
What are the benefits of these advancements for packaging production lines?
Ebenhoech: Higher efficiency, quality, and safety all come to mind, especially if the transportation and/or handling of material is done by workers, for example driving forklifts, pushing carts, or manually handling/changing packaging goods or materials.
One example of higher efficiency would be a company that has several packaging machines. Each of the machines has a different process time. For some, it might take 15 minutes until a load is finished. Others might need several hours. All of them need to be loaded and unloaded over and over again.
Most of the time, the workers will have to stand around waiting for the machines to finish. Sometimes, it might be possible to give workers other jobs in between, but depending on these other jobs, there may not be a sudden break that lets the worker run to the next machine that is ready to be loaded or unloaded. Here, a mobile robot can provide a real advantage that optimizes the worker’s time. And, of course, waiting for a machine is not the most exciting job.
Another point to consider is that using a mobile robot that is controlled via software also means access to data is much easier. Mobile robots are usually connected to the other software and data parts in the factory. Using these data provides constant feedback about the location of the material, making it possible to get better insight into the actual material flow and develop an understanding of all material movement. This, in turn, makes it easier to improve and optimize material flow and production process for better efficiency.
Quality and safety are always important issues. There are dangerous or non-ergonomic tasks that need to be done. Even a lighter part that weighs 10 pounds can get really heavy if it has to be handled for several hours. This can lead to injuries, lower product quality, or human error when operating machines like forklifts. Here, robots and mobile robots can be very useful devices.
Mullen: The increased flexibility of AMRs makes them highly attractive for packaging operations and enables even a single robot to be used for myriad applications within the same facility.
What areas in mobile robots still need work and why?
Mullen: In today’s more connected work environment, sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0, AMRs need to be more connected with a company’s other technologies. That’s happening. Over the next few years, we’ll see more connected supply chains where manufacturing execution systems (MES), robots, and picking systems are united, as are robots and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems within production environments.
This means the process from ordering, to producing, and thereafter transporting goods can now be fully automated. This advancement will also influence the workforce, as we will see the same companies wanting to upskill their current workforce and recruit new employees with skills made possible by Internet 4.0.
Ebenhoech: In general, mobile robots — at least if running sensor and software-based paths — are still a fairly new technology. And while they have opened up a lot of great opportunities, there is still some learning that needs to take place.
One question would be, what part of the application is making decisions? Or better, what part is making which decision? Finding the right balance of the interacting parts, like humans, plant- or application-control software, fleet manager, and individual mobile robot, still remains a challenge. And the answer heavily depends upon the environment and application specifics.
Safety considerations also need to be investigated to find the right balance between keeping people safe while giving the robot enough freedom to be a useful tool. Situations like docking, in which mobile robots need to get close to a machine or workstation, must be carefully analyzed. There are good ways to handle these scenarios, and they are highly application- and environment-specific, as well. Although the safety standards in production are very mature, there is still room for improvement.
Another area that still has room for refinement is making mobile applications more efficient in production environments with a lot of traffic, especially if there are people around. Since safety is the highest priority, the robot will always stop or go around people. That takes time and, depending on the limitation of space, this can add up very quickly. There are a lot of different ways to approach this challenge, and more experience is needed to address all the different competing considerations.
What’s next and when might we see further improvements in mobile robots?
Ebenhoech: Mobile robots are extremely dependent on sensor technology, so the advancement that would probably drive the biggest improvement in their operation would be 3D safety sensors. These sensors would greatly enhance their ability to identify, evaluate, and judge the constantly changing surroundings they operate in.
Safety sensors that provide a 3D image of the environment would also greatly reduce the number of sensors that are used to support applications today. A 3D safety sensor that could differentiate between an object and a person would be a small revolution in this field. It would optimize the path and behavior of the mobile robot substantially.
It would also make it easier to have affordable mobile robots with industrial robots integrated into them. If you need higher-payload robots, the safety aspect gets more complicated. Having smarter and safer vision technology would help a lot.
At the rate in which these technologies are improving, I can’t see this type of leap being that far off.
Mullen: Expect to see more mobile robots used across myriad applications within packaging operations, as companies realize the benefits they provide over traditional material-handling methods for production and packaging lines, such as conveyor belts, AGVs, and even manned forklifts.
AI capabilities will continue to advance, as well. With AI, the technological barrier between AMRs and humans will continue to shrink, increasing collaboration and efficiency.
In fact, as AI advances, we may gain the ability to interact with robots more naturally, using speech or gestures. That might include holding up a hand to make the robot stop, pointing it in a preferred direction, or waving it on to pass or follow — or simply telling it, “This hallway will be blocked for the next two hours. Take another route until then.”
Although mobile robots will still be a controllable tool with emergency stop buttons, they will gain autonomy that will make them even more valuable. They will be able to understand where their routine can be improved and suggest better paths to their destination, more productive times of day to execute tasks, other robots that could be deployed for more efficient workflows, and the most appropriate time to recharge.
AI-powered AMRs will help turn workplaces into organic, data-driven environments, in which robots share relevant data from their own or remote sensors to help fleets of robots make informed decisions. With this data-sharing model, each robot essentially has access to every sensor in every other robot or camera, providing it with a much more detailed view of its entire environment, thus enabling much more efficient path-planning performance.
The MiR200 mobile robot from Mobile Industrial Robots incorporates the UR5 collaborative robot arm from Universal Robots, which is equipped with OnRobot’s RG2 gripper.