While initial capital investment in a mobile robot with control software and interfaces and changes to existing systems may cost close to $200,000, the return on investment is often fewer than two years. Report by Paul W. Hill, business development manager, Reko Automation Division.

Paul W. Hill, Business Development Manager, Reko Automation Division
Paul W. Hill, Business Development Manager, Reko Automation Division

Successful manufacturing today requires highly organised and safe workspaces. Mobile robots can help you achieve these goals and are a key technology piece to provide proactive in plant material planning and transportation.

The mobile robotic revolution is already highly engaged in distribution and logistics facilities and will eventually touch everyone directly including last mile deliveries to your front door. In this world where speed to market and dynamic production flows are critical, advances in Mobile Robotics have quite literally driven technical leaders into positions of ultimate strength. Tissue plants depend on effective material flow processes to deliver uninterrupted production. Incoming pallet based raw materials, case and box materials must be delivered efficiently and timely to automated or manual equipment, and warehouse locations.

In tissue plant material handling, there are three types of applications. The first concern truck pallets loaded and unloaded to a loading dock lay down area (LDA). Operators and forklifts are best suited here due to the high variation and the need for quality control in the process. Another type of application occurs between in plant processes. This sequential material handling is tied to the cycle times of the associated processes and is usually best handled by traditional conveyance systems.

The third application describes moving the unloaded materials in the lay down area (LDA), to the warehouse, ASRS or directly to a manufacturing process, all depending on demand. Mobile robot systems are a great fit for this batch type of material handling. Their mobile robot software optimises and plans the best priority and path for the mobile robots. The in plant MRP system or operator provides the order information for the mobile robot system to fill.

Mobile robot are available in many styles and technology configurations

For tissue plants there are three key styles. First and the most popular for pilot projects are those for a direct replacement a conventional forklift. These mobile robots look like a forklift, have a set of forks and can carry 1800lb payloads, can lift up to five foot and can travel at speeds up to four mph.

Secondly for larger or heavier loads a tugger or towing style mobile robot can move up to 10,000lbs. These robots require transfer stations to pick up and drop off their loads. Some are equipped with onboard conveyors to allow the transfer of full and empty pallets simultaneously.

The third and newest style can support high bay fulfillment centres with up to a 30ft reach. When selecting a mobile robot application type and robot style, there are some potential pitfalls to be avoided. Mobile robots work best in areas with:

  • a gradual floor slope
  • minimal floor moisture
  • an operating temperature above the freezing point of water
  • an area suitable for a charging station.

Modern Mobile robots use lidar to navigate, avoid people and obstacles. Robots equipped with Lidar do not require magnetic strips mounted on the floor, instead navigate using laser light and a stored map of the facility. Some mobile robots have onboard vision systems to identify bar codes or RFID tags to verify the products they are moving. Some installations use vision systems at fixed pick and drop locations to speed the mobile robot’s acquisition of a product. All mobile robots require a charging time which must be included in the calculation of the quantity of mobile robots required for your application.

Processes that can be serviced by mobile robots include, automation cells, box erectors, palletisers, stretch wrappers, receiving areas, warehouse and ASRS systems.

The key benefits of implementing a mobile robot automation solution include:

‱ Increased aisle safety and consistent lanes of material travel

‱ Increased production, OEE and utilisation by minimising plant process stoppages due to material shortages

‱ Longer and consistent material flows with 24/7 operation capability

‱ Reduced dependence on sometimes hard to get forklift manpower

‱ Reduced product and other equipment damage from forklift traffic

Mobile robotic technologies can have a very strong return on investment (ROI) when the above benefits are considered. The initial capital investment of the mobile robots, the control software and interfaces and changes to other systems all need to be considered. Each mobile robot may cost near two hundred thousand dollars. However, the ROI is still often less than two years.

Reko Automation is an integrator of mobile robots including those made by Autoguide. Reko and other integrators perform onsite assessments to determine the best type, style and features suited to a Tissue plant’s requirements. For this assessment you will initially require your

plant layout, product types and mixes, production rates, process flows and storage requirements. Interface information to you MRP and other processes may also be required.

With this information and a site assessment, the integrator will be able to provide a solution that will be able to effectively tie in internal processes between packaging material flow and the main assets through to packaging. In addition, provide highly effective conveyance of finished pallets from palletising to stretch wrapping then to the warehouse and distribution areas of the plant.

There are increasing demands for Mobile Robotic solutions in North America. Market competitiveness demands combined with labor shortages are the key drivers. Leaders with a strong Factory 4.0 strategy and integration partner will seamlessly implement Mobile robot solutions for their right applications. These leaders will improve their competitiveness by reducing costs, increasing production and most importantly improve their ability to proactively plan their future Factory 4.0 production.

Coming soon to your father’s factory.

This article was written for TWM by Paul W. Hill, business development manager, Reko Automation Division.