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Innovative robotic applications for highly reconfigurable production lines - VERSATILE

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Robotic solution to flexible production lines

Installing dual-arm robots along production lines can help manufacturers achieve mass customisation in a flexible and cost-effective manner.

Digital Economy

Mass customisation is a popular manufacturing trend that combines consumer preferences with standardised production line processes. The objective is to offer made-to-order products as efficiently as possible. Furniture companies for example might offer a sofa product with different fabrics or configurations, or a bicycle manufacturer might launch a line of bikes with a choice of different features. Not all manufacturers however have taken full advantage of enabling technologies such as robotics, Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), which could take their production lines to the next level in terms of flexibility. “Introducing technologies that would allow great production line flexibility is still seen as a challenge,” says VERSATILE project coordinator Mildred Puerto-Coy, a project manager in advanced manufacturing at Tecnalia, Spain. “Nonetheless, there is an opportunity here. Being able to use the same production equipment to perform different tasks would help manufacturers to achieve mass customisation very efficiently.”

Flexible production lines

The goal of the VERSATILE project was to install dual-arm robots along a number of production lines. These robots were designed to carry out complex tasks traditionally assigned to humans due to their manipulation requirements. “Our aim was to develop the tools to set up, programme and operate these innovative robotic systems,” explains Puerto-Coy. “These robots would be flexible enough to automatically adapt to a high number of products variants, and thus help companies achieve cost-effective mass customisation.” VERSATILE focused on three industrial sectors: automotive, aerospace and consumer goods. On the technical side, the project team worked on increasing dual-arm manipulation capabilities, to enable robots to handle parts with different sizes and shapes and to carry large objects in a more natural manner. Advances in autonomous navigation, positioning and localisation were also achieved. “On the business side, we wanted to promote the use of robots in European industry,” says Puerto-Coy. “We calculated realistic returns on investments for our three target sectors based on production line efficiencies. When you are dealing with companies investing their time and money, it is important to not reinvent the wheel, but instead focus on solving problems.”

Moving towards automation

The project team successfully demonstrated that many manual tasks can indeed be carried out efficiently through a flexible-automatic approach. “We are happy with the results,” says Puerto-Coy. “We made real progress on the complex problem of dual-arm manipulation. This research has been published, and we expect to continue development.” Exploitable results also include control algorithms, autonomous navigation software and software for robotic vision, besides all of the integration work done in the pilots. “Our automotive pilot for example was the most complex in the project,” explains Puerto-Coy. “Nonetheless, we managed to integrate all the required technologies.” Although the technology pioneered in VERSATILE is not immediately ready for market, the project achieved two exploitable results that are now on the path towards commercialisation. Puerto-Coy is confident that the systems developed will eventually be installed along manufacturing lines, helping to facilitate mass customisation. In a few cases, the cost of systems proposed exceeded end user expectations. “This demonstrates that industrial flexibility can only be achieved within certain conditions,” says Puerto-Coy. “All our end users understood the current capabilities of flexible robotic systems, and accepted that if problems cannot be solved as desired, further research and development is needed.”

Keywords

VERSATILE, robots, robotics, industry, automotive, Internet of Things, IoT, artificial intelligence, AI, Tecnalia, dual-arm, manufacturing

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