Advice to get started with industrial mobile robots

Automate 2024: Lines are blurring between automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated mobile robots (AMRs). Know what’s involved in selecting and integrating industrial mobile robots (IMRs), said Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions. See basic terms.

By Mark T. Hoske May 23, 2024
Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

 

Learning Objectives

  • Learn basic terms related to industrial mobile robots before making decisions about selection or integration for particular applications.
  • Determine a business case when considering industrial mobile robot use.
  • Understand IMR considerations such as integration with other industrial systems, interoperability requirements, communications, connectivity, safety and environment.

Automate 2024: Industrial mobile robot (IMR) insights

  • Knowing basic terms related to industrial mobile robots can help when getting started with IMR selection or integration for particular applications, said Robert Bollinger, owner of Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, at Automate 2024 by A3, the Association for Advancing Automation, in Chicago.
  • Develop a business case when considering industrial mobile robot use.
  • IMR considerations include integration with other industrial systems, interoperability requirements, communications, connectivity, safety and environment.

Making the business case for use of mobile industrial robotics, Robert Bollinger, owner of Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, spoke at Automate 2024 by A3, the Association for Advancing Automation, in Chicago. The session, “Getting started with mobile robotics,” looked at justification for industrial mobile robots (IMRs), their design, safety, distances traveled, interfaces, interoperability and connectivity among other topics when integrating IMRs with industrial automation applications.

Lines are blurring between automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated mobile robots (AMRs), he said, during the session, preferring the term IMR.

When building a business case for mobility in industrial applications return on investment can vary with such things as labor availability, cost of skilled workers, transit alone is not a high-valued task, streamline end-to-end operations and deploying people to more valuable tasks.

Figure 1: Getting started with mobile robotics may require help, said Robert Bollinger, owner, Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, during a conference session at Automate 2024.

Figure 1: Getting started with mobile robotics may require help, said Robert Bollinger, owner, Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, during a conference session at Automate 2024. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Basic terms for industrial mobile robots, IMR applications

Industrial mobile robot terms are many, Bollinger said, and he offered a primer to aid understanding for those new to IMRs.

  • AGV: Automatic guided vehicle

  • AIV: Autonomous intelligent vehicle

  • AMR: Autonomous mobile robot

  • Attachment: Component or mechanism integrated with a mobile platform

  • IMR types A, B, C (see examples below)

  • IMR: Industrial mobile robot

  • Manipulator: Automatically controlled multipurpose mechanism with three or more axes (such as a robot arm)

  • Mobile platform: Assembled components that enable self-propelled movement

  • SGV: Smart (self) guided vehicle.

Autonomous forklifts, carriers that follow paths, service robots and other vehicles may operate in industrial applications, but Bollinger said he would focus on mobile robots for industrial use.

Compared to AGVs, IMRs offer more flexibility, less infrastructure, a diversity of platforms, a wide array of attachments, integration with other machines and many quality vendors and solution providers. He said robots need to be integrated into other systems.

What are types A, B and C of industrial mobile robots?

Bollinger explained IMR types A, B and C.

IMR type A is just the industrial mobile robot without add-ons.

IMR type B offers pallet movement with roller tops, lifts, stands or forks. A fork counterbalance may be needed depending on IMR design and possible loads. They can be used for transporting loads, staging manufacturing processes, in supermarkets using rack storage.

Type B small material movements could include pick-and-place human or robotic support, raw materials transport, finished goods transport, samples and spare parts. Cart or stand movements can integrate a lift, include latch engagement, bring goods to a picker or supply raw materials, Bollinger said.

Automated mobile robots can reduce changeover time between operations on a line. Machine and line interactions may include automatic load transfer, tote placement, material supply and finished goods transport. Applications can be more challenging than they appear, he warned.

IMR type C applications can include sample collection, part picking, carton picking, machine tending, lab use and teaching.

Figure 2: Diagram in center helps classify the varied types of autonomous mobile industrial vehicles to determine if they are type A, B or C industrial mobile robot; images in corners show the diversity of designs, said Robert Bollinger, owner, Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, during a conference session at Automate 2024.

Figure 2: Diagram in center helps classify the varied types of autonomous mobile industrial vehicles to determine if they are type A, B or C industrial mobile robot; images in corners show the diversity of designs, said Robert Bollinger, owner, Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, during a conference session at Automate 2024. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Where to begin when considering industrial mobile robot use?

Where should someone begin when considering IMRs? Identify opportunities in end-to-end operations, such as a warehouse, factory floor, fulfillment, lab applications, long route transportation, simple pickup and drop off areas, picking support, repetitive tasks, as assistants on demand or timed or often for changeover support.

Those who might need help with IMR applications could consider asking an equipment supplier, system integrator, safety consultant and firms providing training and support. These may be from the same or from different companies.

Manufacturers and system integrators are required to follow different safety standards as part of the American National Standard for Industrial Mobile Robots — Safety Requirements (ANSI/RIA R15.08-1 / ANSI/ITSDF B56.5 / ANSI/RIA R15.06 – Industrial Mobile Robots Package). The robot safety standard includes Part 1 for manufacturing functions, and Part 2 for system integrator functions. (The phrasing is function-specific, not organization-specific; an end user could be required to use either part of the standard, depending on the application.)

Design considerations for IMRs may include what moved, where does it go, the environment of application area, systems the mobile robot will interface to and collaboration with other work in the area. How does the AMR or IMR know when it’s needed? What does the interface look like?

Design considerations include load size, weights, form, stability (liquid in a container may create a motion control challenge) and other characteristics (such as liquid flammability).

“Where” considerations include distance, routes, frequency, charging locations (which may be 8 to 16 hours for some applications).

Environmental considerations include locations such as warehouse, factory and/or other areas, temperature, humidity, dry, wet and dirty areas, floor surface (smooth epoxy or cracked concrete) and ramps (which may influence load stability). Clearance considerations include aisle width, items in work or travel areas, doors, lifts and drop offs, personnel doors, fire doors (Could fire doors close on an IMR? Where do IMRs go if there’s a fire?) and cliffs (like a loading dock), Bollinger said.

Designing IMR interfaces with other systems may including docking, charging, carts, machines, information technology (IT) and networking Wi-Fi coverage, along with integration with warehousing management systems (WMS) and manufacturing execution systems (MES). Coordination and cooperation may be required with conveyors, machinery, humans, manual fork trucks and mixed fleets, Bollinger said.

Figure 3: A factory floor offers industrial mobile robots (IMRs) opportunities to improve productivity and lower risk for workers, said Robert Bollinger, owner, Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, during a conference session at Automate 2024.

Figure 3: A factory floor offers industrial mobile robots (IMRs) opportunities to improve productivity and lower risk for workers, said Robert Bollinger, owner, Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, during a conference session at Automate 2024. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

IMR systems, interoperability requirements

There are many general considerations and things to watch out for when applying IMRs to industrial environments, Bollinger said. The mobile robot market is growing rapidly and skill levels vary. Standards are evolving and catching up with technologies. Some products don’t follow standards.

Quality of IMR products differs, Bollinger said, so expectations and results may differ.

Scope creep, a challenge with nearly any complex industrial automation project, can begin with estimating fleet size, which can be challenging because of multiple shifts, charging and maintenance requirements. In industrial environments, other activities can block robots, machine interfaces and require traffic management. Does the IMR vendor see and understand all usual circumstances that may be present in the application? These include robots blocking the way, machine interfaces and traffic management. Increasing fleet size may not be practical or meet the need.

Figure 4: Machine tending assistance: An industrial mobile robot can deliver materials and remove finished product from machines to help operators increase throughput, suggested Robert Bollinger, owner, Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, during a conference session at Automate 2024.

Figure 4: Machine tending assistance: An industrial mobile robot can deliver materials and remove finished product from machines to help operators increase throughput, suggested Robert Bollinger, owner, Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, during a conference session at Automate 2024. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

IMR connectivity, safety, environment

Connectivity issues can vary widely in industrial applications, and Wi-Fi coverage can vary. Wi-Fi losses can decrease IMR throughput for a site, changing the ROI. Site IT department requirements for IMR may include server management, cloud connectivity and cybersecurity. WMS and MES interfaces can be costly, Bollinger noted.

Safety: IMRs can change safety consideration across an environment. Some products may not meet standards required. For instance, is scaffolding with thin legs visible to IMR lidar sensors? Skills and experience of vendors can vary, and this may introduce unexpected risks.

Clearance and clutter: IMRs may have more clearance than manual jacks. Some layouts may not accommodate clearance needed for full speed IMR operations. Humans can identify debris. IMRs may stop if they do not recognize that something in the way. When handling clutter, AMRs are better than AGVs, Bollinger said, because they can adjust paths. For mixed fleets, more sensing may be needed, he said.

Travel paths can be complicated, requiring coordination of operations; blind corners necessarily slow mobile robot speeds. Manual forklifts are unpredictable. Designated travel paths have space requirements.

Before manual operations begin in an IMR area, Bollinger said, collaboration and co-location analysis may be required.

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, WTWH Media, mhoske@wtwhmedia.com.

KEYWORDS: Automate 2024, industrial mobile robots

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Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.