Robots take automation beyond the factory floor

| Manufacturing

Modern collaborative robots are providing flexibility across multiple industries including distribution

From Healthcare to manufacturing, flexible automation through advanced robotics is providing the thread that ties the digital world together.

In today’s digital world, many consumers are increasingly demanding goods which meet their personal needs. Deloitte’s 2019 whitepaper ‘Made-to-order: The rise of mass personalisation’ reported that in some sectors (clothing, furniture, jewellery) over 50 percent of consumers expressed an interest in purchasing personalised products.

Many companies are responding to this by producing online tools that allow consumers to design what they buy. People can create their own shirts and sofas, making sure they get exactly the right features and dimensions to suit their requirements.

Yet most manufacturers are not set up to manage bespoke orders. Constrained by expensive machines designed to do very specific jobs, when they do make changes to production runs, this often involves changing the set-up of machines, designing and making new tooling and swapping programs and materials, all of which adds costs and impacts productivity.

According to automatic manufacturing specialist, ABB, flexible automation strategies achieved using robotic technology are designed from the ground up to make it easy to make changes to products, whether in design, volume, capacity or capability.

Flexible automation

Automatically changing tooling, materials and programming, flexible automation eliminates much of the work involved in swapping from one product to the next. Meeting the pressure to offer more bespoke products, it gets manufacturers closer to the ideal of a batch size of one.

According to ABB, UK manufacturers that have implemented flexible automation are enjoying greater productivity and flexibility, as well as ensuring the high quality that their customers demand.

One UK company, Boomf, introduced a robotic cutting cell to meet the growing orders of its marshmallows, upon which customers can print their choice of photos. Raising productivity, the robotic cell has given Boomf the flexibility to respond to other gaps in the market and led to a 600 percent growth in business.

Coping with the rise in E-Commerce

There’s an upsurge in robotic automation used in logistics applications too. Contributing factors include the rise of e-commerce and the trend for mass customisation.

Enabling robots to palletise mixed loads has added much needed flexibility. ABB’s mixed load palletising system for example, enables building of mixed load pallets based on customer requirements. Fully automated, it removes people from the dull and sometimes dangerous job of lifting heavy pallets whilst still following process rules – taking dimensions, weight, fragility and routing into account when calculating each position on the pallet.

Robotic mixed load palletising systems also provide reliable performance. For example, during the countdown to Christmas many distribution centres can expect a surge in orders. Accommodating the broadest range of products with rapid changeover capabilities, robotic mixed load palletising systems are a forward-thinking approach to improving productivity and reliability during seasonal peaks and troughs.

Digitising operations

Meanwhile, over 5,000 miles away in Hangzhou, logistics leader Cainio, is digitising operations to meet the goal of achieving 24-hour delivery in China. Comprised of several stations, Cainio has already invested in a robotic automated storage and sortation system to efficiently deliver millions of goods.

At the front of the system is an automated storage and retrieval cylinder shelf where goods are temporarily stored upon entering the warehouse. When online orders are received, the system sends an instruction to an ABB IRB 6700 robot which retrieves the corresponding bins and sends them on to the picking station. Here, two IRB 1200 robots integrated with 3D vision and vacuum grippers count the orders, pick the goods and place them on to the operating line for sortation.

At the end of the system, two Flexpickers sort the goods according to each order’s requirements. The robots scan the barcodes, identify the goods and order case and put them into the corresponding case to complete the process.

Compared with others, this flexible logistics system is twice as fast. The robots have also led to lower costs and reduced errors whilst doubling order processing efficiency putting Cainio right on track to achieve its goals.

Equally, collaborative robots offer smaller distribution centres the flexibility to manage shifting demands such as low volume/high mix products. Offering enhanced safety and simplicity, the dual and single arm versions of ABB’s YuMi robot can work safely alongside humans, assembling, testing and packaging small goods. Equipped with flexible hands and integrated vision, YuMi can assemble small parts and place the finished product in a box ready for shipment.

New horizons in healthcare

At the same time the healthcare sector is undergoing significant transformation as the diagnosis and treatment of disease advances. Coping with an ageing population, increasing costs and a growing worldwide shortage of medical staff presents its own unique set of challenges.

Healthcare is also starting to use robots to address these challenges and enhance patient satisfaction. ABB has opened its first global healthcare research hub on the Texas Medical Centre (TMC) campus, in Houston, Texas – showcasing a number of concept technologies, including a mobile YuMi robot, which will be designed to assist medical and laboratory staff with laboratory and logistics tasks in hospitals.

The dual-arm mobile YuMi will be able to sense and navigate its way around its human co-workers autonomously, while learning to find different routes from one location to another. It has the potential to undertake a wide range of repetitive and time-consuming activities, including preparation of medicines, loading and unloading centrifuges, pipetting and handling liquids and picking up and sorting test tubes.

The mobile YuMi could also be used in hospitals for a wide variety of logistics roles. YuMi may be able to dispense medicines, transport them to where they are needed, bring medical supplies to hospital staff and bed linen direct to patients’ wards.

At the TMC Innovation Institute, ABB will develop robots that are able to carry out repetitive, delicate and mundane processes, leaving highly skilled medical and laboratory staff free to undertake more valuable roles and ultimately treat more patients. ABB analysis shows that repetitive tasks could be completed up to 50 per cent faster with automation, compared to current manual processes, with the added benefit that robots can work 24 hours a day.

TMC is the largest medical complex in the world with world-class collaborative research resources, including some of the world’s largest companies and hospitals. ABB’s new 5,300 sq ft (500m2) Healthcare Hub will be housed at the TMC Innovation Institute, a state-of-the-art hub that fosters collaboration of medicine and cutting-edge technology, connecting start-ups with pioneers in academia and technology companies in order to accelerate the development and prototyping of breakthrough medical technology.

Robotic automation in the healthcare sector offers significant opportunity for future growth. According to internal ABB research, the global market is estimated to reach nearly 60,000 non-surgical medical robots by 2025, a fourfold increase from 2018.

Food for thought

The answer to a growing need for flexibility in the food industry? As the population continues to jump on the latest food trends, manufacturers across Europe are already making incremental changes to their production line to benefit from the inherent adaptability that robotic automation brings.

Take for example Panda Confectionery in Finland, a producer of a range of vegan liquorice and supplier to many UK supermarkets. At its production facility in Denmark, ABB’s YuMi collaborative robot is used to fill boxes of sweets before distribution. YuMi selects an empty box and places it under the dispenser. When the box is full, YuMi repositions it and places a lid on top. The arm pivots and moves the box forward to the lid seal where a sticker is added.

Panda Confectionery developed this line because it recognised that the vegan pick and mix market is growing. Using YuMi enables the manufacturer to not only raise productivity but also quickly adapt to new orders. In today’s market, with alternative food products continually being introduced, manufacturers the world over have much to gain from following this example.

The eye of the needle

As the world continues to be reshaped by digitisation, faster demands and shifting health trends, robots are increasingly being used to improve flexibility, to meet consumer needs and to maintain quality and productivity in a wide range of industries. Any business that wishes to remain competitive can make a small beginning with a robotic cell or a collaborative robot, as the starting point in a journey towards full scale automation.

And making a shift to robots doesn’t have to be done in one go. Businesses can identify the processes that can be easily improved using robots, make incremental changes and build from there.

Jonathan Newell
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