Tuesday, May 22, 2018

News: AMRC and the factories of the future

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Engineers at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) are helping SMEs create factories of the future where humans and robots work together to boost productivity.

Collaborative robots – also known as cobots - differ from conventional industrial robots in that they feature technology that allows them to operate safely alongside human workers in a shared area. They are capable of operating with limited force and speed and are equipped with force-sensing to enable them to stop when they come into contact with an operator.

Traditionally, the safe use of robots in manufacturing has relied on barriers, cages and fences that keep humans and robots separated. The downside to this is that it uses lots of floor space and limits the work robots and humans can do together.

The Integrated Manufacturing Group at the AMRC's Factory 2050 on the Sheffield Business Park has been developing technology demonstrators and testing a new safety standard awaiting ratification for different types of cobots.

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Supported by the Government's Catapult programme, the project began in May last year and completed in March this year. A cell was created at Factory 2050 which demonstrated to SMEs how they can integrate the technology onto their factory floors and transform production lines by increasing the rate at which a process is done, as well as the uniformity and quality of finish on a product.

Phil Kitchen, lead for the Collaborative Robotics research project, said: "What we want to do is to start to develop a gold standard for integration. To get this gold standard, for us, it would mean we could help SMEs to integrate cobots on to their shop floor.

"There are a number of benefits of collaborative robotics for SMEs – improved quality, improved rate, so the rate at which they are making their products - and if they improve rate they can potentially sell more and expand, helping them to grow through the use of collaborative robotics.

"A technical specification was released which detailed how you would go about integrating a collaborative robotic system. It's not yet been ratified as a full ISO standard to use and that is being worked towards now. Essentially what we are aiming to do is put ourselves in the right position to act when the technical specification is ratified by the HSE."

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Phil said cobots come into their own when a process will always require a degree of human intervention – such as tasks requiring dexterous, manual manipulation or human decision making. Cobots are also typically lighter and more flexible than bulkier traditional robots, and are able to be moved around the factory floor.

He said: "Cobots can be used as a flexible resource and they differ from standard industrial robots as they have some element of safety built in. So for example, with the KUKA iiwa - that has force and torque sensors in each of its joints so if it touches you it can sense an external force being imparted on to it and will stop itself.

"Whereas with a regular robot, if you get in with it, it could cause serious injury. That's the main difference really, a collaborative robot has some sort of inbuilt technology to allow for safe human-robot interactions."

One demonstration involved a Tier 1 member of The AMRC process whose production line involved fastening components and apply adhesive to them. Using robots removed the need for operators having to use manual adhesive guns.

AMRC website

Images: AMRC

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