Deploying an autonomous mobile robot for the first time
Recent years have seen a steady increase in demand for automated, power-saving systems. The old factory of IDEC Factory Solutions was cramped and aging, making it difficult to increase production. To address the problem, the company decided to build a new factory. At the same time as expanding the production area, they aim to double or even triple its production capabilities by introducing robots and IoT.
The new factory has three floors above ground. The first floor has an area for sorting goods to be carried in and out of the premises, as well as a production area for large control devices. The second floor houses the production line for control modules and other small equipment, and the third floor is used for tasks such as working on wire harness. Components and modules need to be moved between floors, and this work was done manually in the past.
"Previously, the people who sorted the goods on each floor carries it by themselves to its destination," says Deputy Production Division Manager Mr. Tomohiro Tokita, who is in charge of deploying the robot at the company. "However, when we looked at the workload involved in this, it all added up to a whole day's work for one person. If we use a robot to save labor, we could utilize this time to focus on our real work."
IDEC Factory Solutions chose MiR100 with a maximum load capacity of 100 kilograms. This was the company's first time deploying a mobile robot in its own premises. Mr. Tokita says that while the moving work was equivalent to a single person's whole workday, "there was a large experimental element to it."
The MiR100 operates about 8 hours every day at the factory from the start of work to closing hours. It automatically returned to the charging station during the lunch break when nobody else was engaged in work. As such, the robot's tasks were not interrupted by the need to charge, even with only one unit. When the robot receives an order from a worker through a tablet device, it moves underneath a specially developed cart and keeps it in place by extending pins upward from its upper surface. The robot then takes the cart to its designated location.
In addition, IDEC Factory Solutions, implemented functionality for the robot to automatically synchronize with lifts. The company developed a proprietary control panel for the lift so that it could communicate with the MiR100. This configuration allowed the robot to freely move between floors without relying on humans. Owing to its wealth of experience as a system integrator, the company deployed and customized these features and equipment in only about six months.
MiR received strong praise for its user-friendliness
Mr. Tokita mentioned that one of the main features of MiR's autonomous mobile robots is their high versatility: "Compared to other companies, MiR robots are easy to customize and automate to fit the style of production on site. We use a tablet to control our robot, and we can easily change the screen layout to make it easy for workers to understand."
The new factory has about three employees assigned on each floor to control the robot. Each of these employees had practically no prior knowledge about robots, but Mr. Tokita says that they mastered almost everything in a week by learning about the controls during on-site trainings.
MiR's mobile robots use multiple onboard sensors to automatically estimate their current position, allowing them to move to their destination autonomously. Unlike conventional automated guided vehicles, MiR's mobile robots do not need magnetic strips or other guides. This makes it easy for users to make changes to the route if needed.
"We receive many orders for contract production, so we generally work with low-volume, high-mix production," says Mr. Tokita. "This means that we need to change our layout every few months. With MiR's mobile robot, we can easily use a tablet to remap and reconfigure locations for carrying goods."
Companies tend to think about safety when deploying robots for the first time. MiR's mobile robots use sensors to constantly monitor their surroundings while running. If there are people or obstacles in their path, they will safely avoid them and automatically recalculate the route.
"We have had no safety issues so far," Mr. Tokita says. "I thought the unit would avoid obstacles with a robotic, angular motion, but the MiR100 kept moving smoothly around anything blocking its way. I think the software is very refined."
Planning the second step for robot deployment
Only about four months have passed since the robot was first deployed at the company (as of August 2021 during the interview for this article). Although the results are not yet available as numerical data, the lead time has been shortened by creating an environment where employees can focus on production work. Mr. Tokita says that he “feels” the improvement in productivity. "We expect to recover the investment costs in a year. We are very pleased with the outcome", smiles.
"For this initial step, we only automated the equivalent of one person's daily workload in carrying tasks. However, I think there are other ways for us to use robots," says Mr. Tokita. "It is easy to customize the top module in MiR's autonomous mobile robots, so for our next steps we are looking to automate the goods sorting process, deploy the robot for carrying objects between different steps in the line, to further save labor and improve productivity."
IDEC Factory Solutions deployed MiR100 unit as an experimental initiative. Mr. Tokita is pleased with the results and considering introducing more units in the future.