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Smart production line boosts performance of humans and robots

02 February, 2021

The Japanese automation supplier Omron claims to have taken human-machine collaboration to a new level with a “breakthrough” intelligent cell production line that integrates sensing, vision and robotics, and is designed to enhance the performance of both humans and robots as they learn from each other. Aimed, in particular, at high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) operations, the technology is said to accelerate employee training and knowledge transfer, eliminate defects in production, and enhance workflow efficiencies.

The new platform has already been tested at Omron factories in Japan and China. At its Kusatsu plant in Japan, assembly time are reported to have been halved and productivity improved by at least 25% – and up to 200% in high-mix and variable production operations.

The smart line optimises assembly operations dynamically. At each step of the production process, sensors and automated visual tools ensure consistent product quality. Any mistakes or skipped processes are detected in real time, maintaining the speed of assembly. Cobots check the quality of the assembly operations and correct any errors to achieve zero-defect production. The platform also supports, corrects and trains employees without human managers having to intervene.

Omron says that the platform can also enhance materials-handling efficiency and improve intralogistics by using autonomous robots to feed production lines with just-in-time materials. Other potential benefits include:
• using mobile manipulators to reduce work-in-progress and prevent mistakes;
• identifying worker and order types to optimise machine adaption;
• coaching for multi-product orders in small batches; and
• monitoring quality fluctuations and control feedback to the production line, with links to production and inspection information, to support tracking-and-tracing.

“Skilled worker shortages, social distancing measures and economic pressures are making it increasingly difficult to improve productivity and maintain quality when focusing on high-mix, low-volume manufacturing,” says Antonio Farras, general manager of Omron’s European automation centre. “In this context, technological innovations such as AI and IoT offer huge potential for solving some of the problems faced by companies.

“We have harnessed these technologies to visualise a new manufacturing environment that combines the strengths of humans and robots,” he explains. “Employees can be trained in almost no time and real-time work checks – through sensors and automated visual tools – rapidly improve their skills while guaranteeing product quality. We believe this control solution has the potential to transform the performance of production and assembly lines the world over in terms of quality control, training and productivity.

Omron says that its HMLV cell line control system will enhance the performance of both robots and human workers

“This approach is neither human-dominated nor fully automated, but flexible and safe, with people and machines complementing each other’s strengths to support highly efficient assembly and production.”

• You can find out more about the intelligent cell production line in a virtual exhibition that Omron has set up to demonstrate how process efficiencies can be achieved by humans working safely together with mobile and collaborative robots in assembly, machine tending and inspection tasks. Other exhibits in the virtual show include: a pingpong-playing robot; a 3D bin-picking system; a demonstration of AI-assisted inspection; machine tending without safety fencing; ultra-high-speed machining on-the-fly; and a precision positioning system that operates continuously. On-screen guides and videos explain what is happening at each exhibit.

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