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A Reconfigurable robot workCell for fast set-up of automated assembly processes in SMEs

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ReconCell (A Reconfigurable robot workCell for fast set-up of automated assembly processes in SMEs)

Reporting period: 2017-05-01 to 2019-02-28

Rapid changes in market demands lead to decreasing product life cycle times and also more frequent products launches. This trend is especially critical for SMEs. An enterprise has to react fast, efficiently, and in an economically justified way to market changes. More frequent changeovers in product type or in a number of products require new engineering and production methodologies and machinery equipment to enable shorter set-up times of production environments. Robots as highly flexible devices have been successfully utilized in many industrial production processes. Current industrial robots can be applied to execute complex repetitive tasks, often faster, more reliably, and more precisely than human workers. However, despite of these advantages SMEs are still reluctant to employ robots for many types of tasks, e.g. for assembly tasks. The main hindrances are complexities involved in setting-up robot–based automated assembly solutions because these usually require expert knowledge and also significant time for testing and fine-tuning. Since SMEs usually do not have that knowledge capacity and resources, they avoid introducing such solutions, even when they are economically justifiable.

The main objective of the project was to design and implement a new kind of a reconfigurable robot workcell, which is attractive not only for large production lines but also for few-of-a-kind production often taking place in SMEs. The developed workcell is based on novel technologies for programming, monitoring and executing assembly operations in an autonomous way. Innovative reconfiguration technologies enable the workcell to be automatically reconfigured to execute new assembly tasks efficiently, precisely, and economically with a minimum amount of human intervention. On the business side, the consortium’s overall ambition and vision is to bring the ReconCell system to the market.

ReconCell demonstrated several real-life reference use cases in the final workcell prototype. The reference use cases were provided by five SMEs that were either partners in the project or were selected via an open call. Furthermore, we prepared documentation about the technical developments in the project (available as user and developer manuals at and prepared a business plan to set up a commercially sustainable enterprise after the end of the project. This way the ReconCell system can subsequently be implemented and scaled as a new product and business for the market with a product and distribution philosophy that enables rapid uptake of the technology by manufacturing companies, with a focus on SMEs. Furthermore, ReconCell contributed to the development of regional digital innovation hubs whose aim is to support the digitalisation of European manufacturing companies.
The basic premise of ReconCell was that an effective, reconfigurable system for automated robot assembly must provide a high-level of integration between hardware and software components forming the complete system. ReconCell therefore introduced several innovations both in hardware and software and made a significant effort to tightly integrate the available hardware and software methodologies. Another important guiding principle was modularity to facilitate the expansion of system capabilities and quick replacement of hardware and software modules.

To enable fast design, programming, and re-configuration of the workcell, a robot simulation system VEROSIM was integrated into the ReconCell toolchain. In simulation the cell operator can easily design and manipulate the structural elements of the workcell, including actuators and fixtures that comprise the ReconCell system. The visual programming toolchain in VEROSIM provides a convenient way to implement processes and tasks in the assembly application. The operator can assess tasks and their outcomes, and directly deploy the implementation on the shop floor by exploiting the mapping from the simulation to the real robot control system. ReconCell also demonstrated that given right assumptions, machine vision processes including pose localisation and visual quality control are now sufficiently mature for industrial tasks.

The realized workcell control system is based on ROS (Robot Operating System), which fully supports modular design of the ReconCell system, including communication between all active workcell elements. By building a solid foundation, the integration of modules was performed with ease. Special focus was put on the integration of the simulation environment, which is now connected bidirectionally to the workcell at multiple levels. The workcell was tested and improved though implementation of five industrial use cases provided by five different SMEs.

Finally, a business intelligence platform to support the to support the initial solution selling process was developed. This research and development resulted in a new, collaborative sales solution called Inhancer. The goal was to ensure a competitive predictable behaviour of the ReconCell value creation system and support the decision making and collaboration to reach the business goals of the future ReconCell company and its customers.
The main result of the project is a new kind of a robot workcell which enables affordable and fast reconfiguration through tight integration of 1. innovative reconfigurable hardware elements with passive degrees of freedom, 2. manual reconfiguration technologies, and 3. modular, ROS-based software for efficient programming and control of robots and other active elements in the workcell (cameras, force-torque sensors, tool exchange systems, pneumatic braking systems, various grippers, robotic screwdrivers, ...). The operation of the system is further supported by digital twin provided through VEROSIM simulation system. Innovative reconfiguration technologies and modularity enable the workcell to be in part automatically reconfigured to execute new assembly tasks efficiently, precisely, and economically with a minimum amount of human intervention.

ReconCell has created large impact during the run-time period of the project and will have an impact after the end of the project. The project has demonstrated how European manufacturing companies with typical SME-like assembly processes can achieve a significant increase in productivity and become more competitive. In the course of the project, the results were demonstrated live during 3 major industrial events (Hanover Fair 2017 and Automatica 2016 & 2018) and one major academic event (IROS 2018).

The project has also brought up new technologies. Already early in the project, a spin-out company called FlexHex has been created for a component of the workcell, the hexapod. Here, investment has been collected from outside of the project to start-up the commercialization of technology from the project. Another hardware component with immediate impact is a plug and produce module called “Robocoup”, initially developed for the needs of the ReconCell project and now offered to the market by Precizika Metal. To support the commericalization process of the complete system after the end of the project, the ReconCell team prepared a detailed business case and a suggestion on how to organize a future ReconCell company.
A reconfigurable robotic workcell developed in the reconCell project