Manufacturers are facing shrinking product lifecycles with frequently changing customer demands. As a result, they need agile production and flexible factory layouts that can easily be modified whenever needed.
Traditional logistics applications like forklifts or conveyor belts, and even more modern automated logistics liked automated guided vehicles (AGV), haven’t supported this new dynamic business. AGVs require permanent wires, magnetic stripes or sensors embedded in production floors, while forklift trucks are expensive to maintain and man.
Metro Plastics, a supplier of custom plastic injection molded parts and tools based in Indianapolis, provides a good example. To transport finished goods to quality assurance, workers used to put the finished goods in boxes on a pallet at the end of each press unit and would wait for inspectors to make their way to their station, with folklifts moving through the facility to pick up the pallets when the goods were approved.
With as many as 20 jobs happening at a time, this meant that boxes and pallets would often stack up at each press unit as they waited for the inspector, often becoming a tripping hazard.
When Metro Plastics built a new facility, its president, Ken Hahn, considered installing AGVs to get the products to the inspectors faster. But AGVs required installing permanent wires in the concrete, making it difficult to change the route if the production layout needed to change.
Hahn then heard about autonomous mobile robots (AMR), which provide built-in sensors and cameras that enable them to identify their surroundings so they can take the most efficient route to their destinations and avoid people and other obstacles.
After “mapping” the facility using software with a simple, Web-based interface, the AMRs were set up to loop the production floor, stopping at each press for 30 seconds. This allows press operators to load finished products as soon as they fill a box and then pass it on to the warehouse for quality inspection. That eliminated forklift truck traffic while making the production floor cleaner and safer.
The Kverneland Group, a manufacturer and supplier of agricultural machinery and services, also requires extremely flexible solutions to handle its dynamic production environment. The company produces thousands of machines a year, with more than 2,000 pallets moved through the facility each week.
Always looking to optimize production flow and to avoid delays in its internal order program, the company looked into AMRs in part to replace forklift pallet trucks, which it deemed expensive in terms of maintenance and man hours and unsafe.
Kverneland Group implemented an AMR that autonomously picks up, transports and delivers loaded pallets from pallet racks. It moves safely around employees, shelves and trucks 24 hours a day.
During any 24-hour period, the robot covers a total of 30 miles, covering about four routes in an hour. The company has seen improved productivity by eliminating much of the forklift traffic.
In addition, the robot’s mapping technology make it especially adaptable and easy to reprogram whenever changes are needed.
As a result, the company is planning other areas in which AMRs will optimize material handling and other logistics, considering any area in which parts can be transported using something like a shuttle or taxi service instead of employees who have to walk or drive to pick them up.
These AMRs allow companies to make quick changes to processes and their plant layouts. They also allow them to add various modules on top—such as pallet forks, conveyors and even robot arms—to benefit different applications.
This offers even greater flexibility for companies like Kverneland and Metro Plastics, which are looking to automate their material handling and ultimately handle with ease the ever-changing demands from their customers.