Customer Stories: University of Auckland: Flexible & Mobile Automation for Manufacturers

Most manufacturers are well aware of the power of automation solutions. They are also well aware of the associated costs, risk and inflexibility. For that reason, the University of Auckland’s Laboratory for Industry 4.0 Smart Manufacturing Systems (Smart Manufacturing Lab for short) integrated a Universal Robots cobot, a Robotiq end effector and a MiR AGV to create a flexible, autonomous robot with applications across goods transportation, loading and unloading of parts and co-manipulation of manual work. The common thread is the enhancement of the jobs performed by humans in factories. It’s about creating a human-robot team. 

 

An Alternative to Traditional Automation

The Smart Manufacturing Lab found that many New Zealand-based manufacturers, particularly SMEs, could not justify the investment required for traditional automation solutions. Traditional automation solutions are found to be infeasible for New Zealand’s manufacturing landscape which is characterised by high mix, low volume production and contract manufacturing. The Smart Manufacturing Lab at University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering found that the solution was to develop a flexible robot suited to deployment across a facility, rather than for a single application.

As many New Zealand-based manufacturers are unable to achieve the required ROI of a large-scale robotics integration, manufacturers are dependent on manual or semi-automated manufacturing processes. As the rising costs of human labour and shortages intercept with the decreasing cost of robotics, the moment is right for manufacturers to consider a robotics implementation in their facilities.

The Role of the Flexible & Mobile Robot in The Future Factory

The primary purpose of this flexible mobile robot is to work alongside human operators to relieve them of dirty, dangerous and dull work. As University of Auckland’s Smart Manufacturing Lab works alongside a range of manufacturers throughout New Zealand, they understand the needs of industry and combine the learnings from multiple manufacturers to develop a single solution that can be scaled while avoiding significant CAPEX investment.

A solution of this nature can also be integrated with existing manufacturing cells or production lines with limited rework required. This is particularly salient for manufacturers looking to take gradual steps towards automating their facility. It also allows for an unprecedented level of flexibility. Manufacturers can experiment with different automation combinations across their facility using a single robotic cell.

Cobots have demonstrated their ability to safely work alongside human operators, freeing them of dull, repetitive, and dangerous work. The value of this solution lies in its potential to enrich the working lives of the humans of the manufacturing industry while driving operational excellence.

Bringing the Technology to Life

The University of Auckland’s Smart Manufacturing Lab wanted to bring this technology to New Zealand manufacturers in a way that suits their unique requirements. To create a human-robot team, a cobot, rather than an industrial robot was the obvious choice. The simple user interface and an ability to re-programme a cobot on-site for redeployment to complete a range of tasks across a facility with little robotics expertise makes the solution accessible for manufacturers of all sizes. The ease of programming also allowed the Smart Manufacturing Lab to focus on the critical aspects of robot navigation and the control algorithm.

Next Steps

The Smart Manufacturing Lab is now working to add a layer of intelligence to this solution which will allow the cobot to work autonomously to learn new tasks within the factory to better support human operators. They are also actively piloting the mobile robot solution with their local industry partners to get market feedback for improvement.

The end goal is to create an end-to-end factory automation solution which offers complete visibility of operations across a facility. This will allow the Smart Manufacturing Lab to further experiment with the potential of robotics, AGV and machine learning technologies to shape the local manufacturing industry to be more sustainable, resilient and human-centric.

Dr. Yuqian Lu

Dr. Yuqian Lu

Lecturer of Smart Manufacturing & Head of Industrial AI Research Group at The University of Auckland

Yuqian is passionate about drawing on sound academic research to create robust and powerful manufacturing automation technologies with the potential to transform the workforce. Prior to joining the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Faculty of Engineering, The University of Auckland, Yuqian held a range of roles throughout the manufacturing and IT industry. Yuqian’s current area of research is focused on smart manufacturing systems, Industrial IoT, AI and robotics.

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