AMRs: The Scalable Solution for Semi-Automated to Full-Scale Industry 4.0 Automation

By: Ed Mullen, Contributor

In 2016, Honeywell decided to add AMRs to its line of robotics to automate the transportation of raw materials and assemblies, which until then was manually pushed around on carts by employees in the nearly 1 million square feet facility.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are increasingly used as the most effective solution when wanting to optimize internal logistics, reduce cost and increase productivity while addressing labor shortages. Despite the turmoil created by the COVID-19 pandemic for most businesses, mobile robots have been singled out by Interact Analysis as one of the most promising emerging technologies, offering an important tool in the race amongst manufacturers to adopt to flexible, digitized and safe working practices.

AMRs require no additional infrastructure. Instead, they use built-in sensors, cameras and intelligent software to navigate efficiently and safely around workers and equipment. The robots’ missions can be easily programmed, updated and optimized as new workflows are added or production requirements change. AMRs allow manufacturers to focus workers on high-value activities that directly drive revenue, rather than taking them away from their workstations for low-value tasks such as pushing carts. As with most new technology and robotics, the strategies for implementing AMRs into facilities vary significantly between companies, but AMRs can create value from the moment they are installed, whether in simple, semi-automated or fully automated applications.

Create value with complex or basic AMR solutions

The most advanced AMRs have the capabilities to be part of highly complex and fully automated solutions. These flexible robots can be customized with different top modules such as racks, conveyors or collaborative robot arms, while the software can be integrated into existing systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), manufacturing execution systems (MES) and warehouse management systems (WMS) to ensure that material is always where it needs to be—automatically, efficiently and consistently, while also generating valuable data to see how efficient the material transportation is. Integrated AMRs also ensure that material is delivered just-in-time to each stage in the process, so equipment and operators are kept consistently productive. Complex, customized and fully automated solutions like these give an extremely high payback while maximizing the throughput of logistics operations.

For some companies, however, it makes sense to start these automation projects at a smaller scale. One of the main benefits of AMRs are the flexibility, adaptability and scalability of the mobile robots, allowing companies to have a phased approach where they begin projects by focusing on a simple implementation and then customize the solution once they get familiar with the robots. Mobile robots can easily be deployed and redeployed, potentially with different top modules, and a simple rack structure can be placed on top of a robot with just a few bolts as a start. The communication with the robot in simple implementations is mostly handled via the robot interface on a tablet, where the employees can summon a robot with a push of a button. This approach does not use the robots’ full potential and there may still be manual pick up and drop off, for example, so the processes are not fully automated. On the other hand, it is a low-risk and fast deployment process that can add significant value as the employees grow familiar with the robots and get a sense of how to implement the AMRs into the facility (and workflows) in the best possible way.

The flexibility of AMRs supports continuous optimizations of internal logistics

AMRs require no additional infrastructure. Instead, they use built-in sensors, cameras and intelligent software to navigate efficiently and safely around workers and equipment.

Take Honeywell Safety & Productivity Solutions in Poole, UK, as an example. Honeywell produces gas-detection equipment that is used in off-shore oil and mining, as well as consumer-grade detection for homes. The company’s manufacturing processes are highly automated, and in 2016 Honeywell decided to add AMRs to its line of robotics to automate the transportation of raw materials and assemblies, which until then was manually pushed around on carts by employees in the nearly 1 million ft2 facility.

Honeywell utilized the scalability and flexibility of the robots to their advantage. When the company implemented the robots in 2016, it initiated the project with a phased approach. It then introduced the robots into a semi-automated workflow with a simple box on top. The robots were manually loaded in the warehouse, and the employees sent the robot to a workstation via a tablet. The robots were not integrated into any external systems and were controlled by the simple robot interface.

Today, Honeywell has upgraded the application and developed a conveyor system for a fully automated process, where the employees have minimal interaction with the robots. The robots now have conveyors mounted on top and can automatically go to the warehouse, collect raw material from a conveyor that connects to the robots’ conveyor and then deliver the material to different assembly lines. Honeywell has integrated RFID scanning technology into the robots, so they can check the content of the boxes and take it to the correct manufacturing line.

Increased integration increases precision and productivity

When Honeywell first started using the AMRs, the company had four delivery stations. Now it has 15 throughout the production plant. When the company first integrated the AMRs, it redeployed six full-time employees for higher-value tasks. With the fully automated solution, the company saves even more manhours, as the robots are automatically summoned, loaded and unloaded. There are additional benefits as well. For example, the automated workflow has eliminated the risk of errors in goods delivered from the warehouse, as the RFID scanner ensures that the robots always take products to the correct line.

As Honeywell demonstrates, AMRs deployed on a small or large scale can help optimize internal logistics, reduce cost and increase productivity while addressing lingering labor shortages. These flexible, digitized and safe working practices AMRs offer can benefit nearly every sector as they continue to recover from the pandemic shutdown and remain competitive in today’s uncertain business environment. WMHS

Ed Mullen is Vice President of Sales, Americas, at Mobile Industrial Robots ApS (www.therobotreport.com/tag/mobile-industrial-robots). At MiR, he is responsible for establishing and managing the company’s distribution channels and marketing activities in the Americas. Mullen is a seasoned business development executive with more than 25 years’ experience in industrial automation sales management and engineering roles.

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