For decades, industry has depended on the serial production or assembly line model for producing goods. However, as European industry becomes increasingly customer-centric, there is a growing need for a more flexible way of producing parts and products – one that can quickly adapt to varying customer demands while minimising the costs of large inventories. One possible solution is the use of intelligent robots, which is the focus of the EU-funded project THOMAS (Mobile dual arm robotic workers with embedded cognition for hybrid and dynamically reconfigurable manufacturing systems). “THOMAS aims to create dynamically reconfigurable factories through the use of autonomous, mobile robot workers,” says Niki Kousi, a researcher at the University of Patras’ Laboratory for Manufacturing Systems and Automation (LMS). “Thanks to their dual-arm configuration and ability to move freely around a shop floor, these robots are capable of performing advanced tasks, thus creating a new production paradigm,” adds Sotiris Makris, head of the Robots, Automation and Virtual Reality in Manufacturing group at LMS.
Robot perception libraries
What makes the THOMAS robot unique is its ability to perceive its surrounding environment. The robots are also capable of advanced reasoning, which allows them to cooperate with each other and other production resources – including human operators. Each robot is equipped with certified sensing devices that allow it to safely move and interact with humans within a fenceless environment. Behind these advanced capabilities is an innovative technology called robot perception libraries. Leveraging the power of artificial intelligence, these perception libraries allow the robots to navigate without colliding, properly align themselves and virtually dock at different workstations, and detect the positioning of the various tools used during the assembly process. “These robot workers can autonomously navigate their way through a factory, undertaking multiple tasks like screwing, handling and drilling – to name only a few,” explains Kousi. While some could view THOMAS as another example of jobs being lost to automation, Makris is adamant that this is not the case. “THOMAS is designed to act as an assistant to its human operators, taking over the most dangerous and strenuous tasks,” he says. “Not only will this increase the safety of our factories, it will also allow humans to focus their attention on the most advanced, high-level tasks – including robotic programming.”
Although THOMAS represents a breakthrough in mobile dual arm robotic manipulation, there are still several issues that must be addressed. “At the top of our list are limitations in perception accuracy, constraints in the real-time continuous detection of objects, and network bandwidth issues when multiple sensing devices are involved,” explains Kousi. Another barrier is current safety regulations, which prohibit human operators from working close to, in parallel with, or in the same area as robots. “Building better synergy between technology developers and safety experts – a synergy that exploits the latest advances in AI – will allow us to build new innovative solutions that may eventually boost standardisation,” comments Makris. Regardless of these limitations, the project has successfully introduced a new way for factories to operate – one that leverages advancements in mobile robotics and AI. The project team is now conducting industrial pilot cases in two factories, one located in France and another in Spain. “Implementing THOMAS in real production plants offers a unique opportunity to prove our original ideas and prototypes,” concludes Makris.
THOMAS, robots, artificial intelligence, AI, automation, robot perception libraries, factories, mobile robot workers