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Case Study: Autonomous Tuggers Improve Intralogistics for Clinical Lab Automation Company Inpeco

By: Ed Mullen, Contributor

The use of tuggers can free employees from repetitive tasks so they can perform higher value activities. Image courtesy of Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR).

Inpeco, a multinational company specializing in automation for clinical laboratories and hospitals, aims to reduce errors in clinical trials while ensuring total process control and better quality of results. At its Val della Torre plant, on the outskirts of Turin, Italy, automation systems are produced to order, or as customized solutions for each individual customer. The company tailors the layouts of customer automation plans, and has over 290,600 square feet of factory space, with more than 129,000 dedicated to production.

About three years ago, this plant decided to review the processes and layout of its entire production flow from a lean perspective. This upgrade required very efficient logistics and timely supply of the production lines, based on a call-up system from the line operators.

Specifically, once the materials to be assembled have been emptied from a trolley, the operator could call up a robot with another trolley to deliver more materials to their station and tug away the empty one. This process applies both to the supply of the raw materials and to the withdrawal of finished products at the operator’s request once product testing has been completed.

These movements, if handled by Inpeco staff, would have involved a full-time commitment to this activity, while the plant’s main need was to free workers from transport-only tasks, which were repetitive, of little added value and demotivating.

Objective: Free the staff from repetitive transport tasks

After examining various options to automate material transport in the production area, Inpeco decided to implement an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) with a hook (called the MiR200 Hook) as a tugger. The dimensions and load capacity (up to 200 kg or 440 pounds) were perfect for meeting the company’s tugging needs and to allow workers to engage in more value-added work.

“We were looking to automate some processes with low-added value in order to be able to redirect resources to operations that are more important and indispensable for the company,” said Roberto Ferraro, Project Manager of Inpeco. “We decided the first application should be the transport of raw materials from the warehouse to the production line and finished products from production to the packaging department. Thanks to the MiR robot, we were able to concentrate on the most productive activities for us, always focusing on the safety of workers, the delicateness of the product and the dynamic production environment in which Inpeco is used to operating.”

Ease of use was also a determining factor in the choice of the AMR tugger. Due to its simple and intuitive user interface, even less experienced operators can use the robot, always having the opportunity to monitor and manage missions. Warehouse operators can also now devote themselves more to higher value activities such as picking, loading materials in automated storage areas and avoiding wasting time on tasks that simply involve moving goods.

Another reason for choosing the AMR tugger was its ability to move along corridors where it shares space with factory personnel or other means of goods handling. “The robot is able to detect obstacles, even when they are in motion and adjust its path accordingly so as to achieve the goal of its mission,” said Stefano Tolomeo, Head of Production at Inpeco. “The MiR robot saved us the space that a traditional solution would require, given that such a solution doesn’t allow for the space to be used for other purposes.”

Rapid implementation and operational efficiency

Production orders are prepared from stock by picking up the material and loading up trolleys of variable weight, up to 500 kg (1,102 pounds). Once the job is completed, the robot can tug the trolley.

When a job in production is finished, operators activate the call-up software by scanning a QR code assigned to their work area to request the delivery of a trolley with materials for the next job and the collection of the empty trolley currently at the station. This way, the destination of the robot’s mission is registered as the location of the operator who made the call-up. The software also automatically retrieves the correct production order from the management system, making the on-screen information available and allowing the warehouse managers to know which trolleys are being collected by the robot.

Once all the assembly phases of the product have been completed, the finished article must be transported to the packaging department. The operator then registers on the management system the end of the process and packets of information are automatically sent to the robot software, including the size of the article to be moved and its initial position on the map.

Currently in the Inpeco production area, the AMR tugger currently tows 16 different objects of varying length, from 3.25 feet up to 8 feet.

The AMR tugger has contributed not only to the optimization of Inpeco’s internal logistics but also to the security of the production area. During its journey, it makes several detours, travelling along the corridors that delimit the production operator stations. Each time it enters the corridors, as well as turning and automatically hooking up a trolley, the robot communicates via flashing lights and sounds that alert operators to its arrival. In addition, during its journey, thanks to 3D cameras and precision sensors, the robot always places the trolley it is tugging in the center. When it encounters an obstacle, be it a person or a forklift truck, the MiR robot stops and assesses whether an alternative route is available. This ensures maximum safety along the way, eliminating the risk of accidents.

A future of logistics automation

Inpeco predicts that the implementation of more AMR tuggers will be easy and quick since it will only be necessary to identify the areas on the factory map where the robot will have to deliver the raw materials and withdraw the finished products, while the system will inherit all the configuration logics already implemented. WMHS

Ed Mullen is Vice President of Sales, Americas, for Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), where he is responsible for establishing and managing the company’s distribution channels and marketing activities in the Americas. Previous roles include VP of Sales and Marketing for Simplimatic Automation, and National Sales Manager in North America for Universal Robots. 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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