Three robots and two large manufacturing machines communicating, collaborating and accomplishing tasks, all without human direction or involvement. Together, they take a piece of aluminum and, through several processes, convert it into a finished and packaged product.
It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie.
However, it will soon be a reality as part of the Industry 4.0 Lab in the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research’s (IALR) Center for Manufacturing Advancement (CMA). IALR staffers have designed and are building an autonomous manufacturing work cell where robots and manufacturing machines communicate via wireless signals. The work cell should be fully operational around December.
With the ability to tweak the process for different scenarios, this Industry 4.0 Lab will serve as a demonstration site, showing manufacturing companies what is possible. Enclosed in a glass room, the Industry 4.0 Lab will also be visible during tours of IALR.
“It’s a demonstration lab to show local industries what new technologies are out there and what might be able to benefit them,” said Butch Kendrick, Director of Digital Manufacturing IALR “We call it automagic.”
Robots and Machines Communicating, Working Together and Directing Each Other
Throughout the automated process, three robots and two different computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines will communicate with each other about the process and what each one needs from the others. All these communications – and the requests and information they share – have been pre-programmed and are managed by a software called a manufacturing execution system (MES).
“The actual machines are integrated with the robots,” Yeatts explained. “The machine calls when it needs to be tended by the mobile robot. The only human interaction was the programming. No one’s actually guiding the robot. The robots know the process and complete their jobs as needed.”
There will be alternative steps and workflows depending on the application, but the basic process will go something like this:
- Under orders from the MES, the tending robot will pick up and load a piece of aluminum into the first CNC machine. With the material firmly in place, the machine will cut a shape. The robot will then take the part out of the machine and place it on a table.
- Under a request from the tending robot, Ralph will retrieve the part and conduct pre-established inspections with engravers and scanners on the inspection island.
- After the inspections, Ralph will drive to the CNC milling machine. Ralph will be responsible for tending the machine, putting the part inside and telling the machine to begin the operation before leaving to complete another task.
- Once complete, Ralph will retrieve the part and take it to the coordinate measuring machine or back to the inspection table, depending on the predetermined workflow. Those that fail inspections or tests at either location would go onto a rejection conveyer belt – an event that would trigger a text or email notification to a human supervisor.
- If it passes all relevant tests, Ralph will bring the module to Rosie – who received that name after a recent Facebook naming contest. Rosie will complete a final inspection, package the part and set it on a conveyor belt.
- When Rosie says she has completed her task, Ralph will collect the packaged product and place it in the retrieval area.
The Challenge of an Autonomous Mobile Robot
Two primary challenges came with creating this type of integrated, automated manufacturing workflow.
How precise could the autonomous mobile robot be?
Disbelief and doubt. That is what Kendrick heard from organizations around the country while presenting the idea of an autonomous mobile robot as part of an automated manufacturing process. They said the robot would not be able to leave one post, go to another and then return to the exact same spot.
Precision and repeatability are critical in these processes. The cart holding the automated robotic arm must pull up to the exact location every time. The robot arm must be able to reach the exact same spot in space repeatedly.
Kendrick and the Manufacturing Advancement team have developed a robot with extreme locational, three-dimensional precision. Prior to occupying the new CMA, they repeatedly demonstrated this concept in the Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining, which houses the Integrated Machining Technology program. Once the AMR identifies a point in space and selects it as a reference point, it can return to almost that exact location even after traveling around the room to complete other tasks.
(The robot always came within 0.0015 inches of the point in space. That’s slightly larger than the diameter of a human hair.)
How could each of the robots and machines involved effectively communicate with each other?
What makes this workflow unique is how all the machines and robots communicate with each other through the MES in real time. Throughout the development of a single widget in this workflow, dozens of messages flow between the machines and robots. Some of the examples of messages the robots and machines share:
- “I’m done with this process. Now you can collect this part.”
- “The widget is positioned correctly. You can close the door and begin the operation now.”
- “I am ready to complete another process.”
Traditionally, robots and machines that communicate with each other write files of information and put them in mutually accessible folders. This also requires extensive hardwiring and infrastructure.
“Working in the industry for 35+ years, one thing that disappointed me was working with automation. You had these two pieces of equipment that needed to exchange control information, but it was done in a very archaic way. It was done with technology used in the 1960s and 1970s. I knew there had to be a better way.” – Butch Kendrick, Director of Digital Manufacturing, IALR
But what if that communication could happen in real time? Each machine and robot has its own language. The key to allowing real-time communication, Kendrick said, has been creating proper protocols, which function as a sort of universal language between the technology and the MES. One of the focus areas of Industry 4.0 is creating the ability for different machines to communicate wirelessly without delay, which creates flexibility and reliability.
The Impact on Southern Virginia and Beyond
The Industry 4.0 Lab fits into the overarching mission of the CMA: to serve as the destination of choice for innovative manufacturers ready to optimize their operations and scale and facilitate the expansion of the advanced manufacturing sector. But the interplay between robots, machines and manufacturing processes is just one of the appeals of the CMA. Other features include:
- Rapid-launch high bays can provide a temporary home for companies developing their own facility, expediting operational start-up time.
- A CNC machining innovation lab enables new and existing businesses to evaluate their processes, build out improvements and incorporate efficiencies.
- An ISO-certified metrology lab provides the integrated inspection capabilities required to validate product quality and includes one of the largest coordinate measuring machines on the East Coast.
The CMA is positioned next to the future Regional Training Center for the Accelerated Training in Defense Manufacturing program and other manufacturing training programs from IALR and Danville Community College. With the potential to host some classes and have students learn robotics and automation in the Industry 4.0 Lab, the CMA will also help prepare the workforce for advanced manufacturing jobs.
“Even with the rapid development of automation and technology, manufacturing jobs are not going anywhere. They are simply evolving to require more skills in areas like coding, engineering and math. Much of our focus at IALR is preparing the workforce for the future by teaching those needed skills in programs across all age and experience levels.” – Todd Yeatts, Executive Vice President, Manufacturing Advancement, IALR
Both existing manufacturers in the region looking to expand and manufacturers looking to enter Southern Virginia with a new site location are already benefiting. The United States Navy also established its Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence (AM CoE) within the facility. The AM CoE will develop manufacturing “recipes” (technical data packages) that other organizations around the country can utilize to create parts and components. Several industrial manufacturing partners located in Southern Virginia for the first time due to the AM CoE.
“Today’s manufacturing and workforce challenges require comprehensive and innovative approaches to the way industry collaborates, along with significant investments in infrastructure, equipment and people. The CMA fosters each of these obligations in a way that will benefit the region, the Commonwealth and the country.” – IALR President Telly Tucker
These goals will remain the same in the Industry 4.0 Lab and the entire CMA, even as the equipment and processes evolve.
“I’m hoping everybody will be using this technology, this equipment and these processes five years from now,” Kendrick said. “Integrated automation and robotics will be commonplace, and our team will be looking at newer technologies and processes.”