The future of robots in manufacturing and distribution can be seen in a modern operating room. These programmable assistants are being equipped with the necessary software, mobility, flexibility and communications to enable them to work with surgeons in the same work envelope. How will those skills translate to a plant or distribution center?
It’s happening at Otis Technology in Lions Falls, NY. This gun cleaning systems manufacturer and assembly operation is not the kind of organization that would have been considered a good candidate for such technology only a few years ago. However, since adopting ADAM robotic vehicles from RMT Robotics in 2009, Otis has proven to itself that the safety and communications features these devices possess can enable them to work among humans in a changing environment and adapt to each change. All these vehicles need is for someone to tell them to go from Point A to Point B. They don’t have to be guided along that route. In fact, if one of these vehicles encounters a human in its path, it won’t beep to make its presence known. It can politely ask, "Excuse me, can I get around you?"
This is a function of the RAP (Reactive Audio Playback) system the ADAM vehicles possess. This system includes interactive voice messages and a mobile "vehicle in motion" jukebox for every mood and season. Together with the Otis operational group, RMT engineers customized the ADAM sound application to play "text to speech" messages, sound bites or musical interludes that can be either actively or passively triggered in reaction to a variety of operational conditions and system inputs.
This application is designed to play various sound bites in response to queues embedded in the control system. The use of different sounds (either voice or familiar noises/melodies) minimizes sound redundancy from other material handling devices and vehicles.
"Because of the low height of the ADAMs, we found a benefit in being able to use sound to track their location," says Cara Peebles, marketing coordinator for Otis Technology. She adds that these robots will soon make daily personnel announcements and reminders for company social events.
Being a fairly small organization, Otis Technology’s desire to automate surprised Bill Torrens, director of sales and marketing for RMT Robotics. What about the affordability and labor displacement issues many other small companies see as obstacles to adopting such technology?
How Robots Compute
"They found that the system could offer a lot of benefits for lean manufacturing, beyond eliminating the labor of just pushing carts around," Torrens answers. "But they’re not laying anyone off. They’re retraining the laborers who were pushing carts to do value added work such as packaging. By retraining those individuals to do something more valuable, the volumes they can get out the door increase and the profit of the organization increases way beyond the investment in these little vehicles."
The justification isn’t all about the robots themselves, but in how they interact with the other manufacturing and distribution technologies in their environment. In a distribution center it may start with a WMS saying, "I need to fill this trailer and this is what I need to load." That information stimulates a series of activities, including an ASRS’s release of a pallet load into a forward robotic picking area. There, multiple individual robots are orchestrating their pallet loads to fill a single consolidated order, get the right products in the right quantities onto the same conveyor, which subsequently streams it to the appropriate trailer for loading in route-stop sequence.
In a plant, a robotic vehicle system could be delivering components automatically to various stages of an automated process. Machine A asks for a part from Machine B and the vehicle is dispatched to pick up and deliver it.
Plants Preparing Pallets
Where material handling and distribution were concerned, unit-load palletization was always the core application for robotics. However, the demands for item-level ordering and lower transportation costs, along with the trend toward easier robotic programmability, are driving simplification of robotics as well as the supply chains they serve. With robotic palletization being driven to the end of production lines, some companies are skipping the distribution center entirely, according to Rick Tallian, consumer industry manager for ABB Robotics, North America.
"We’re seeing a lot more nontraditional pallets being built—half-high pallets, quarter-high pallets, etc.," he says. "You’d be amazed at the number of different SKUs coming out of a manufacturing plant. Take pizza for example. There are many different varieties taking up a single manufacturer’s space in the retail environment. All of those are made in one plant. The retailer doesn’t want a pallet of cheese pizzas, he wants what that Kroger store at the corner wants. That store is driving back to the manufacturer exactly what kind of footprint of product he needs to stock his shelves."
This is why large manufacturers are now loading their trucks in route-stop sequence and skipping the DC. The new robotic technology is enabling them to mix 40 SKUs in one delivery and get a good picture of the best route to deliver them. Analyzing the cost of labor vs. the cost of technology makes this easy to justify, according to Tallian.
"There’s more of a hidden cost to hiring people than you think," he says. "We’re giving a bigger bang for the buck with robots today. The cost has not increased since the mid 1980s and has actually gone down. The International Federation of Robotics has done studies on the cost per unit performance of a robot in the past to now, and a robot costs only 15% of what it did back in the mid '80s. We’re handling more payload, faster and more accurately."
A Familiar Language
Another trend contributing to the democratization of robotic technology is the very language of technology itself. Until recently, robotic technology providers relied on proprietary control languages to run their products through their paces. End users either had to learn that language or depend on someone else to program their equipment.
Now robots are learning their owner’s language—the language of the programmable logic controller (PLC), which is the language of most every other type of automated technology, says Bill Natsch, director of robotic integration for Intelligrated.
"With PLCs, line engineers and maintenance people can control robots with something they’re all familiar with," he says. "The two companies that rolled this out are Yaskawa Motoman and Kuka, and we’re at the beta site for both companies. We’ll start seeing wider deployment within a year."
The programming flexibility will be complemented by human/machine interface, tooling and movement flexibility—just in time to meet the growing challenge of item-level fulfillment. In fact, pallet pattern optimizing software and flexible end-of-arm tooling make it possible to build up to four layer configurations in one load. Building layers of multiple SKUs on one pallet will open a gateway to lean, sustainable operations, according to Natsch.
Ready for the New and Different
"It used to be everything went into a rigid corrugated case that was easy to handle," Natsch says. "Now you see a lot more shrink film only or trays with no shrink film, or a pad with shrink film. With plastic bottles the walls are getting thinner to save on the plastic. People are looking for gentle handling and robots can offer that where a conventional machine can not. And what makes that work is the tool at the end."
When a manufacturer changes its packaging, the same robot can change from a clamp to a vacuum tool, or even forks. And, says Natsch, that kind of flexibility may represent no more than 10% of the overall cost of an entire robotic system.
Robotic technology has come a long way, but it also has a long way to go to fulfill its potential in material handling and logistics. Their growing computing power and their ability to process information rapidly and extensively will make them more autonomous. Eventually they will process their own information to perform both routine tasks as well as those bordering on artificial intelligence. Robots saying "excuse me" to someone blocking their path is the start. The finish is nowhere in sight.