Autonomous, intelligent materials transport advantages

Inside machines and robotics: Mobile robots are adding flexibility and space-efficiency in complex industrial applications. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are adding efficiencies, especially electronics and semiconductor industries.

By Christoph Wimmer February 11, 2020

Materials transport in consumer electronics and semiconductor manufacturing is a challenge. To enable small-volume, high-mix semiconductor production, for example, wafer cassettes must be transported in complicated orders with precise timing. Tasking human workers with transporting these items lacks efficiency; automating the process with inflexible conveyors or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) reduces system adaptability.

New technologies are emerging as effective solutions to this issue. Today’s mobile robots automate materials transport without any of the complicating factors caused by AGVs. Best described as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), these robots self-navigate throughout dynamic environments using the shortest viable pathways. Space-efficient and capable of delivering materials on precise timetables, AMRs optimize throughput and cut costs.

What are autonomous mobile robots?

Whereas traditional AGVs move along paths specified by additions to the factory floor such as wires, laser beacons or magnetic tape, AMRs have self-navigating software. AMRs use sensors to navigate around people and unplanned obstacles that would incapacitate AGVs.

Ideal for conveying goods throughout warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing facilities, the most advanced AMRs on the market have a runtime of up to 19 hours per day. In addition, software management systems make it possible to coordinate fleets of up to 100 individual robots working simultaneously, enabling traceability, intelligent job allocation and efficient traffic control across the entire fleet.

AMRs save space, cut installation costs

Since AMRs aren’t limited to travelling on predefined paths, they reduce manufacturing logistics congestion by navigating around one another more effectively than AGVs, which require specific “evacuation areas” configured by magnetic tape in order to pass each other. AMRs can autonomously take turns going through the same space with no evacuation area necessary, so they work more effectively within narrow spaces and help to maximize space utilization.

AMRs are capable of moving materials through areas with heavy traffic in addition to narrow passageways, which help manufacturers achieve flexible factory layouts in which delivery points are constantly changing, and they also complement traditional mechanisms like conveyors. With no need for factory modifications like floor magnets and navigational beacons, their implementation saves up to 15% of deployment costs compared with other strategies.

AMRs: productivity, flexibility, traceability

A coordinated fleet of self-navigating mobile robots streamlines job scheduling by bundling pickup and drop-off locations into strategic groups. Capable of carrying the right products to the right place at the right time without pause, AMRs minimize unplanned operational time caused by missed deliveries and accidents.

This is important for semiconductor production, in which wafer cassettes must be transported in complicated orders. Due to the complexity of these processes, some semiconductor manufacturers opt to have human workers carry the materials from station to station. The benefits of automating these processes are immense if they’re done intelligently.

One manufacturer replaced its human-run materials transport system in its 200 mm fab with an AMR, which boosted high-mix production and reduced inventories. With mass-produced products such as computing memory being transferred to the 300 mm factory, small-scale production, such as custom large-scale integration (LSI), takes place at the 200 mm factory. The AMRs help the fab keep up with growing demand.

Another semiconductor manufacturer started using AMRs to improve sputtering machine maintenance, which involves periodically cleaning or replacing the target material. Weekly cleanings and monthly replacements are recommended, and it’s necessary in both cases to open the equipment. Since the target material changes depend upon the particular process being run, the AMR helped enable a flexible material handling system.

In addition to enhancing productivity and flexibility, AMRs improve material flow traceability by capturing real-time data throughout the process. Each time a job is allocated to a particular robot, this event is reflected in the system. Analyzing this data can give manufacturers insight into the system’s overall workings and find possible areas for improvement.

AMRs help the workforce, training, safety

By taking care of repetitive, error-prone tasks, self-navigating robots reduce the likelihood of mistakes while freeing up the workforce to perform activities that require human ingenuity. In addition, AMRs help keep semiconductor manufacturing plants free from contamination by ensuring employees only enter workspaces where human ingenuity is needed.

One semiconductor manufacturer was able to assign workers to other tasks and reduce training time because the AMR made it unnecessary for new recruits to learn transport processes. A manufacturer of liquid-crystal display (LCD) panels eliminated manual tray transport from buffering areas to cell stations with AMRs that carry 40 trays per day. This boosted efficiency by making sure the right product gets picked up and/or delivered at the right time.

By taking on materials transport tasks, AMRs also help prevent work-related accidents that can be caused by heavy lifting, collisions or other workplace hazards. In the previous example where the robots assisted with sputtering machine maintenance, the safety improvement in was as important as the boost in productivity. By automating materials transport, workers are no longer exposed to these hazards.

System integrators help with AMRs

When setting up a fleet of mobile robots, a system integrator who has an in-depth understanding of the particular AMR platform can design a system to fit the factory needs in a very short time. This saves the customer significant effort in design and engineering. Several of the listed examples involved a skilled integrator from the starting stage; the simulation of routing and job assignments were key to success.

An AMR offers benefits for manufacturers in the consumer electronics and semiconductor industries. By automating materials transport needs with a flexible and reliable system, mobile robots ensure efficient floor space utilization, robust traceability, workforce optimization and help minimize risks to employees.

Christoph Wimmer is manager, semiconductor/electronics at Omron Automation Americas. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


KEYWORDS: Mobile robots, mobile autonomous robots, AMR

Sensors help AMRs intelligently navigate.

AMRs save space, cut installation costs, and add productivity, flexibility, and traceability.

Workforce productivity, training, and safety can improve with AMRs.

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Author Bio: Christoph Wimmer is manager, semiconductor/electronics at Omron Automation Americas.