Robotic assistants for workers on the factory floor
Electric cars are the most likely environmental-friendly replacement for combustion engine-powered vehicles. To help industry make the expected transition, the EU-funded LOCOBOT project has developed reconfigurable robotic assistants to increase productivity on the assembly line – reducing costs. And as the robots are so adaptable, they will be particularly useful for the new and varied production processes expected in electric-car manufacturing.
The project’s low-cost robotic assistant is designed to work alongside humans on the factory floor. This includes the robot itself, along with plug-in modules, and the engineering toolkit required for quickly configuring the robot, and programming it for specific tasks.
“The mobile robots could make their debut at assembly lines within three to four years, allowing for low and varying production volumes that can quickly be changed to produce larger numbers,” says project coordinator Christian Wögerer of Profactor, an applied research company based in Steyr-Gleink, Austria.
The expected benefits for the industry – and its workers – include higher efficiency, safer working conditions and the ability to quickly adapt production processes to demand. The innovation will help to simplify the industrial transition from combustion engines to electric drives.
“LOCOBOT is essentially an assistant to help workers in their day-to-day work on the assembly line, with each robot capable of performing a multitude of tasks,” Wögerer says. “The focus of the technology is not to replace people but to make their work as easy and convenient as possible.”
At the heart of the LOCOBOT approach is a reconfigurable and mobile robotic assistant platform. The robot responds to speech and gestures and can also be quickly reconfigured to perform different tasks as needed by joining together hardware and software modules. For example, it could help workers place batteries into cars, or move heavy items or tools around the shop floor with its reconfigurable arms and gripper.
Workers will be able to re-programme the robot for each new product or task themselves, without the need to call on specialist technicians, saving companies time and money.
The robots would make manual production tasks much more efficient and improve conditions for human workers by reducing their need to lift heavy items, avoiding potential injuries. Workers can also look forward to being able to delegate more tedious tasks to the robot, such as packing items into boxes.
A competitive edge
Tailor-made, low-cost robotic co-workers could give European car makers the much needed edge in this competitive industry. In fact, the LOCOBOT team predict that within two to five years, their technology could generate annual savings of €150 million for the sector. “This figure could multiply up to 10 times depending on how demand evolves,” adds Wögerer.
LOCOBOT involved key players from the automotive and automation components industries, as well as top researchers. Prototypes were also tested in three pilot production lines at German-based car manufacturer Audi in June 2013.
Further development of the technology is still needed, but a final product ready for commercialisation should be available “in three to four years”, maintains Wögerer.
The shift to electric vehicles is a unique opportunity for the EU to establish strong leadership in the industry. And with demand for greener, more customised, safer and better quality vehicles growing, LOCOBOT is well positioned to help the automotive industry meet these needs.
And its uses could go beyond the automotive industry. “The mobile robots could also be used in assembling solar as well as clean room applications,” concludes Wögerer.