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Published: 16 May 2017  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Industrial researchIndustrial processes & robotics
Innovation
Research policySeventh Framework Programme
SMEs
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Countries involved in the project described in the article
Belgium  |  Denmark  |  France  |  Germany  |  Netherlands  |  Spain  |  United Kingdom
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Plug-in robotic systems to benefit small manufacturers

Businesses using robots for short-term manufacturing assignments will be interested in a service developed by EU-funded researchers that can custom-design affordable robots. Businesses will be able to either lease or buy the robots for quick installation.

Photo of human and robot hand

© Sergey - fotolia.com

Many companies – especially small businesses – are looking for ways to boost efficiency so that they can compete in global markets. Automation and robotics have the potential to deliver this efficiency. For example, repetitive tasks like assembly and disassembly, finishing, machine filling and packaging could be done more efficiently by robots.

Yet because these tasks tend to change relatively quickly as new products are brought to the factory floor, many small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) cannot justify the costs of installing robots that will only be used for a short time.

The EU-funded Factory-in-day-day project aims to remove the time and cost obstacles to installing robots. Their proposed solution is the ‘plug-and-work’ robot. The project is also developing advanced robotic technologies, including a ‘skin’ that incorporates sensors and other innovations to enable safe interactions with humans.

“Our plug-and-work robotic systems get the job done in a safe and simple manner, and without the traditional barriers,” says project coordinator and TU Delft Professor Martijn Wisse. “By integrating the essential element of user-friendliness, the user stays in control of the robots after they are installed.”

Order, install, work, return

Here’s how it works. First, Factory-in-a-day goes to the company and performs a complete analysis and evaluation of the manufacturing processes. Based on their findings, they then create a customised proposal for streamlining via the use of automation and robotics.

Once agreed, the project either sources existing technology or designs custom components that are created using 3D printers. The components are delivered to the factory, installed and tested.

Following a training session, the robots only have to be ‘plugged in’ before getting to work. If the task is only temporary, the components can be unplugged and shipped back to the project, from where they will be installed and used at another company.

“The project aims to marginalise the cost of system integration by reducing the time for integration to a minimum,” explains Wisse. Although the project initially aimed at a one-day turnaround, this proved unrealistic.

But even a longer installation process provides users with significant benefits. “Users not only benefit from a 50 % decrease in costs, our system also means that SMEs no longer have to earn back the investment through a single short production batch,” adds Wisse.

Wisse explains that due to the short installation time, the machines can be re-installed for another temporary product line and continue being useful, or simply returned to the project. “This opens up the possibility that the robots and other machinery are provided under short-term lease contracts to the SMEs, bringing the investment risk down to zero,” he says.

Automatic for the SME

Although still a work in progress, the project has already conducted several successful demonstrations. In the most advanced trial, a robot automatically loads and unloads shaver parts in a tampon printing machine. In a second case, packing items into a box is being investigated.

In addition to robot-based processes for SMEs, the project is also developing innovative robotic solutions of its own, such as an artificial robotic skin. Each ‘cell’ in the robotic skin includes distance, force and temperature sensors, as well as a three-axis accelerometer that can be used to enable safe interaction with humans.

Once complete, it will, where practical, be incorporated into the project’s various plug-and-work solutions. “We believe that the skin will be a powerful tool from a control and safety standpoint, as it helps to ensure a safe human-robot interaction,” says Gordon Cheng of the Technical University of Munich, developer of the robotic skin and a project partner.

With less than a year to go, the project is set to focus on integrating these results into its demonstrators.

“With the technological and organisational innovations of the Factory-in-a-day project, we are on track to accomplish exactly what we set out to do: fundamentally change the ways robots are used in the manufacturing world,” concludes Wisse.

Project details

  • Project acronym: FACTORY-IN-A-DAY
  • Participants: Netherlands (Coordinator), Spain, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, France, UK
  • Project N°: 609206
  • Total costs: € 11 111 309
  • EU contribution: € 7 968 232
  • Duration: October 2013 - September 2017

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