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The rise of cobots

29 August, 2017

There’s no doubt the use of robotics will grow significantly in the industrial sphere in a wide variety of applications. There has been growing concern that robots are set to replace tasks humans are currently executing, but the latest technology is allowing automation of repetitive jobs, paving the way for increased efficiencies and providing opportunities for upscaling. Simon Duggleby, technical marketing manager at RS Components, reports.

The notion of replacing humans is quite the opposite of the technology being developed by the robotics manufacturing industry, which is created to be wholly collaborative with both humans and other machines. One of our customers, Mobile Industrial Robotics (MiR) - a global firm based in Denmark – is pioneering this technology to help increase efficiency to keep production in Denmark, with robotics being used in factories and warehouses, as well as non-industrial spaces such as hospitals. An increased intelligence is allowing robot machinery to be truly intuitive and collaborative, facilitating tasks whilst learning about the environment in which it is working so that it can evolve in its role.

MiR design engineers worked closely with RS in the development phase of their products. RS recently visited MiR’s operation in Odense, Denmark, to learn more about how its collaborative mobile robots are increasing the operational efficiencies of companies around the globe, freeing up workers’ time so they can focus their skills on higher-value activities.

Automating internal logistics to increase efficiency

The collaborative robots developed by MiR automate internal logistics, transporting items between locations, process lines, or maintenance tools – but are certainly not just a solution limited to industrial environments. In Denmark, The Hospital of Southern Jutland uses a fleet of MiR robots for transporting cancer medicine and blood samples. Staff send for the robot using their phones, and when it arrives, they simply load it and send it off again.

The company’s key products are the MiR100 and MiR200 - both of which enable businesses to automate their internal logistics and transport processes easily and cost-effectively. Both models operate in the same way, with the only difference relating to their payloads – 100 kg on top or pulling a 300 kg cart for MiR100 and 200 kg on top payload or 500 kg pulled in a cart for the MiR200. This technology negates the need for employees pushing carts around a building or making internal deliveries. In lean manufacturing terms, they minimise the transport, motion and waiting elements of non-value-adding ‘wastes’. The modules transporting the goods are fully customisable, and can include racks, bins, conveyors, lifts or even a collaborative robot arm. Modules can be built according to the specific requirements of users and can be easily switched for full flexibility.

Putting safety and security high on the technology agenda

One might question the safety of robots scurrying about in high-traffic areas such as hospitals – as well as in industrial settings where people are still present. However, on our visit we found out that MiR’s mobile robot fleet operates very safely as a result of high-level sensor technology. Robots are able to scan 360 degrees using hundreds of built-in infrared sensors. A 3D camera in front of the robot scans for obstacles, whilst ultrasonic sensors allow it to see things that cannot be picked up by infrared, such as glass. MiR used RS to source many products for the development of its robots, which enabled it to move quickly on product design with access to a wide breadth of range and speedy delivery. These included the sensor ranges used in the robots, as well as wire harnesses and connectors. A key development tool for MiR is the much-loved Raspberry Pi, as it is easy to programme and provides a testing tool that is user-friendly.

Keeping safety at the top of the agenda, MiR uses laser scanners to effectively create different safety zones around the robot. This means even obstacles appearing suddenly in front of the robot would cause the power to the motors to cut out, and it would stop immediately.

Hardware layers are ‘topped’ with software layers, which is where measuring data is continuously gathered from which to navigate, in addition to the 3D camera in front. Different routes can be calculated to avoid obstacles, so the robot will drive around anyone who enters into or crosses its planned path. There are additional safety layers: if something unexpected happens in the software, there are emergency stop zones that are completely built into the machinery. MiR’s products are built to a number of EN and/or international standards.

We were curious about the security of using robots such as this, given that they are essentially computers that can drive themselves about. There is the obvious threat of hacking and any robotics developer has to make this a top consideration. This has been a real focus for MiR, and the firm employs cryptography to secure the code and make access difficult.

Challenges in installing robotics

One of the concerns of organisations considering installing robotics could be the potential technical challenges. Whilst this can sometimes be a reality, MiR has sought to overcome this by designing a highly accessible web interface with ‘drag and drop’ programming, enabling the user to programme the robots according to their requirements.

The firm is keen to help customers overcome the challenge of getting staff prepared for the introduction of robot technology, which MiR’s Supply Chain and Production Manager, Flemming Thinggaard, believes is one of the biggest hurdles. Helping them get past initial concerns that the robots might take their job is key, as well as communicating the fact that the robot is there to help them in their work in a collaborative way. Aesthetics are important too, given these robots are working alongside with humans, MiR has paid attention to the design of the robot, keeping them clean, smooth and simple.

The future of robotics

Robotics are no longer a futuristic notion. Within five years, we should expect to see more widespread integration of collaborative industrial technology. This will greatly enhance production, with workers routinely using robots in place of tools. This will vastly improve efficiencies, allowing for real upscaling and freeing up time for further innovation. The production line is set to be revolutionised, and the possibilities are both endless and exciting.

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