Given the growing importance of custom products and shorter product life-cycle, the Internet of Robotic Things (IoRT) could optimize manufacturing environments.
According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA, smart robots offer new, customer-oriented solutions that improve manufacturing processes. Dr. Werner Kraus, from the department for Robot and Assistive Systems, explains:
Cyber-physical systems will play a key role in managing the increasing complexity of production systems. These are ‘intelligent’ machines, tools and components which communicate with each other via the internet in real time. Using sensors to collect physical data, such as production, logistics and management processes, they modify physical operations with the aid of actuators.
The Digitization of Manufacturing
Robots are also linked to one another via digital networks and utilize internationally-available data and services. Secure IT platforms like Fraunhofer’s Virtual Fort Knox offer manufacturing companies needs-based IT solutions. These can help optimize factory planning and operations, for example.
Dr. Kraus’s department has been working on several prototypes and technologies highlighting the advantages of a digitized manufacturing environment, including a bin-picking system.
Its automation software can locate workpieces randomly mixed in a bin, enabling a robot to pick them out.
The position of the parts is identified using an efficient algorithm and this system can be implemented for almost any workpiece.
The robot system can work independently; the algorithms and object data are later processed on the integrated hardware. But it also can be integrated into a much larger digitized production system which extends the potential of the software solution.
Thanks to a central data pool containing information on workpieces or program modules for direct implementation, the robot system can be put into operation and maintained more efficiently than in the past, components replaced more easily and all processes traced and controlled centrally.
This not only makes it more adaptable but also speeds up retrofitting to accommodate new product variants. Via a range of services, the cloud also offers new software functions.
Locally-optimized processes can be played back to the cloud, thus enabling all networked robot systems to benefit from one-time program changes.
Michael Henrich, marketing representative at Kawasaki Robotics, says all the company’s robots can communicate the parameters of their operating conditions and share data via the IoRT, allowing modification of automated processes.
Our controllers are equipped with many interfaces—serial, I/O, bus, analog and Ethernet—which are necessary for connecting robots with the IoRT. Production flexibility to react quickly to the changing demands of customers and at production sites is now possible. The same output can be produced by fewer machines and the human capital factor can be deployed more efficiently. Industrial automation with IoRT is mandatory for industries in developed countries to remain competitive.
US-based InduSoft supplies drivers for Kawasaki, Motoman and Modbus TCP, among others. These provide robot and production line parameters in a graphical format which is easy to handle. Melinda Corley, software specialist at InduSoft, says:
A common architecture many applications use to integrate robotics uses InduSoft Web Studio to communicate with the programmable logic controller which then communicates with the robots.
InduSoft has sought to include native communications with industrial robotics in its line of communication drivers.
This allows ready communication with many robotics currently available on the market. With easily configurable communication and hardware agnostic drivers, it’s possible to select the best available equipment for the system and connect everything easily into one operator environment. It also enables machine-to-machine communication via the cloud, allowing machines, operators and interfaces to share information seamlessly with one another.
What is the Future for the IoRT?
Big data analytics results in process improvement, e.g., reduced downtimes via predictive manufacturing. Furthermore, robots will become more intelligent through self-learning algorithms like deep learning.
For Ms. Corley, robotics “may one day be configured to learn new tasks remotely or on the fly.”
The IoRT also has the potential to truly revolutionize manufacturing by connecting it to supply lines and even end consumers. For example, it could one day allow robots to produce a product automatically based on data from shipping, sensors indicating low warehouse stock or orders from a purchasing system.