Munich A few years ago, autonomous transport robots for industry were seen as great hope for the global robotics industry. After all, intralogistics in the factory halls is much less automated than production. But the mobile robots have not yet really caught on.
But now experts believe the breakthrough is possible: “A very decisive point is that the production structure is currently changing, especially in the automotive industry: from fixed production lines to a flexible structure based on the use of mobile autonomous robots,” says Susanne Bieller, General Secretary of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).
The industry association expects a real boom. Last year, sales of mobile autonomous robots for logistics in industry and mail order rose by 42 percent to 75,000 units. Bieller believes that such growth rates are still possible. According to IFR forecasts, sales could rise to 259,000 by 2023.
According to experts, there are several reasons why the breakthrough on a broad front has not yet materialized. A lot of computing power is required for real autonomy, and there was still some catching up to do with sensors. Here prices have fallen while efficiency has increased.
In addition, the different systems were and are often not compatible with each other. Uniform interfaces are currently being developed in the industry.
Above all, however, the mobile robots have so far hardly been really integrated into the processes. If, for example, a person has to load and unload the machine, little productivity is gained. So far, individual processes in production have been highly automated, says Fabian Rusitschka, founder of the start-up Arculus. “But the linking of the individual steps doesn’t work.” It is crucial to bring the production and logistics flows together in the same system.
Modular production is intended to replace assembly line systems
Arculus is here to do just that. The Munich company develops mobile robots, but also the software to control them and integrate them into the logistics and manufacturing processes. With Audi the company has already won an important pilot customer in the automotive industry.
At its core, Rusitschka and Arculus are primarily concerned with replacing the assembly line system with the model of modular production. The assembly is to take place on islands in the factory hall, which are supplied with the required parts by autonomous robots. That should improve the effectiveness. Only those vehicles that actually have seat heating installed can pass the conference heating island. Another advantage: If something gets stuck, the entire belt doesn’t have to be stopped.
For interested industrial customers, Arculus simulates production with the help of a digital twin and develops a model for modular production. “So far we have always found at least a 20 percent improvement in productivity,” says Rusitschka. He is confident that this will also succeed in other projects.
Arculus originally wanted to concentrate on the software, but quickly realized that it was easier to connect to its own robots. The solutions also work with robots from other manufacturers. It is usually easier to develop a new market together.
The robotics industry, which has been used to success for many years, can use new impulses. Last year, according to the IFR industry association, sales of industrial robots fell for the first time in seven years by twelve percent to 373,000 machines sold.
The corona crisis could drive automation forward in the longer term, but the important customers from the automotive and electronics industries have been reluctant to invest in the meantime.
This traffic jam should clear up quickly. Automakers are constantly being forced to improve productivity. At the same time, the complexity in production increases. In addition, the variety of the product range is growing again with the new electric cars. The times when a large number of identical models could be produced on one line are over – especially since customization is increasing through the installation of high-margin special equipment.
Robots can help in production – even if Rusitschka emphasizes: “It’s not about full automation.” There are many things in assembly that humans are still best at. But everything that is superfluous around it must be taken from him. “People shouldn’t run to the shelf. The shelf has to come to the employee when a part is needed. “
Experience from the automotive industry can be transferred to other industries
Then the autonomous mobile robots are in demand. The manufacturer’s market is still very fragmented. A strong position is likely Amazon have – but the mail order company only builds for their own use.
One of the great pioneers in the industry is Mobile Industrial Robots (MIR). The Danish Teradyne subsidiary increased the number of employees from 60 to 160 last year alone.MIR will continue to grow in 2020 despite Corona, said the new CEO Søren Nielsen. The robots could help industries around the world make up for lost sales by improving productivity.
The entire industry is confident. Autonomous mobile robots were initially mainly used in mail order, says Susanne Bieller, general secretary of the IFR industry association. Thanks to the digitization of production, they are now also part of the factory of the future.
Lighthouse projects such as those at Audi in a Hungarian plant can help. Autonomous transport vehicles and intelligent controls are used here, among other things, in logistics areas where employees pre-assemble components in the correct order.
“We are very satisfied with how the changeover went at Audi,” says Rusitschka. The system works seven days a week. The change is always tricky. “If something goes wrong, the entire production comes to a standstill.” As a pilot project, Audi was a great opportunity for Arculus. “Now we are opening up to other customers inside and outside the automotive industry.”
The necessary financial strength for this is available. At the beginning of the year, Arculus collected 16 million euros in time for the outbreak of the corona pandemic. Atomico, the German Visionaries Club and La Famiglia as well as successful founders such as Johannes Reck from GetYourGuide took part as lead investor.
“The Arculus modular production system has all the requirements to transform traditional and one-dimensional assembly line production,” Atomico partner Siraj Khaliq told Handelsblatt. Arculus has “a unique opportunity to transform a huge market”. In the automotive industry alone, around 90 billion dollars in costs could be saved worldwide through the use of modular production. Atomico is the venture capital firm of Skype founder Niklas Zennstöm.
Now the idea of modular production with the support of mobile robots is to be widely rolled out. Because, says founder Rusitschka happily: “The great thing is that the experience from the automotive industry can easily be transferred to other industries.”
More: How industry complements the Internet of Things with Artificial Intelligence.