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Integrated modular solution for handling of flexible materials in an industrial environment


The overall objective of the HANDFLEX project is to acquire and improve the state-of-the-art knowledge on the behaviour of "delicate" (i.e. materials that cannot be pulled, bent or twisted when being handled through the various manufacturing phases) materials when these are handled in manufacturing processes. To do this, 3 case studies have been put up in order to provide the widest research field and evaluate different cases with very different materials and different industrial environments, from SMEs discontinuous processes to large company continuous processes, to robotised manufacturing chains. The specific objectives for the 3 systems were:

* System 1: to set up an advanced and highly specialised robot with complex designed grippers having the innovative ability to handle flexible materials at any production stage of the process. A common task for any car manufacturer was chosen for System 1: mounting cable forms into a car doorframe. The problem of assembling cable forms and other deformable, linear objects (like hoses, ropes, (leaf) springs) is investigated from a more general point of view. This method ensures that the results of the project can be used in a wide field of industrial applications.

* System 2: to get the prototype robotized installation for automatic production of the heating elements or resistance that EIKA uses for their heaters and automatic laying of such heating elements along a distribution groove in a ceramic base plate. At the moment handling and laying operations are manually done and require expert operators in order to get the production rate and quality that EIKA requires. The heating element that is manipulated is a very flexible material and the manipulation operation results on a difficult and extremely repetitive monotonous operation all working at high production rates.

* System 3: to automate the coiling of submarine cables in huge (some 40 m in dia.) tanks at the end of the manufacturing process. The aim is to build a prototype at the submarine cable plant of Pirelli in Italy that can coil the cable automatically without damaging it. At present the operation is done manually by two workers in shifts of two hours each. The complexity of the problem is due to the wide dimensions, to the "delicateness" of cables which must keep their transmission characteristics, to the continuous manufacturing process and to the variables which may occur in the process.

The research approach for the 3 systems was based on simulation of the system concepts in order to understand the theoretical problems linked to the construction of the prototypes and to minimise the risk of failure during installation and testing. Nowadays simulation techniques are widely available but these needed to be adapted to the particular cases under study in order to adapt the algorithms to the requirements of the 3 cases. The activities of the 3 cases studies have been conducted in parallel whenever possible in order to benefit from possible exchange and synergy between the systems as far as possible. HANDFLEX work programme moved from the definition of user requirements and then went on to a theoretical study phase in which the design concepts were defined, modelled and simulated. At the end of this first stage the control algorithms were studied and the final design of the prototypes was finalised. This was further simulated before the actual construction. The last stage of the activities was based on the implementation, installation, testing and validation of the prototypes. All the steps and results are documented in relevant deliverables.

The general outcome of the HANDFLEX project has been successful. The prototypes of system 1 and 2 have been tested and validated successfully. System 3 has obtained important theoretical results although, due to high costs, the prototype could not be built.
As far as common results are concerned, the HANDFLEX project produced important academic results on the behaviour and knowledge of flexible materials handling which have been the object of several papers and presentations by the University of Karlsruhe.
HANDFLEX addresses the problem of handling flexible materials with delicate characteristics in the frame of processes for manufacturing the materials themselves or anyway utilising flexible materials at a given production stage. By "delicate" we mean materials that cannot be bent, twisted, pulled or more generally submitted to stresses of any sort exceeding given thresholds. By "Handling" we mean to move, collect, stock, transport, install and any other operation on the product.

Handling of flexible and delicate materials is at present performed manually or with limited assistance of conventional mechanical gears, like for example winches and cranes. A precise, specific industrial need exists for saving human fatigue and time and reducing scraps during handling operations.

The problem of handling flexible material is well evident in the Electric Cable Industry, be such cables for power or signal
transmission (these last are realised with optic fibres), where at present the coiling and uncoiling operations are performed totally manually. A main stream of the research aims at the rationalisation and extensive automation of Cable Manufacturing Operations. A systematic solution of this specific problem would generate savings in the Electric Cable Industry alone by million ECUs per year.

Besides Electric Cables the HANDFLEX Project explores other Industrial Sectors like Textiles and Plywood, in order to provide the European Industry with a solution as general as possible. Two lines of research are foreseen:
- To conceive and implement dedicated equipment for Submarine Cables to perform automated collection and dispensing (coiling and uncoiling) to and from the stocking tanks and the transfer on the cable dispenser ship
- To set up a special Robot with special grippers to handle Flexible Materials in general at any production stage in the factories

Funding Scheme

CSC - Cost-sharing contracts


Pirelli Cavi e Sistemi SpA
Viale Sarca 222
20126 Milano

Participants (7)

Eicas Automazione SpA
Via Vincenzo Vela 27
10128 Torino
Eika SC
48270 Markina
Parque Tecnologico Edificio 202
Kuka Roboter GmbH
144,Bluecherstrasse 144
86165 Augsburg
Kuka Schweißanlagen GmbH
Blücherstrasse 144
86165 Augsburg
Simea2 SpA
Via Passariello 40
80038 Pomigliano D'arco
Universität Karlsruhe (Technische Hochschule)
12,Kaiserstrasse 12
76128 Karlsruhe