Dynamic Horizons offers advice for getting started with industrial mobile robots

Industrial mobile robots require careful consideration by organizations, according to an Automate 2024 session.
Industrial mobile robots can improve productivity, according to Robert Bollinger of Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions. Credit: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Robert Bollinger, owner of Dynamic Horizons Automation Solutions LLC, made the business case for industrial mobile robots, or IMRs, at Automate earlier this month. His session on “Getting Started With Mobile Robotics” looked at justifications for IMRs, their design, safety, distances traveled, interfaces, interoperability, and connectivity. Bollinger also addressed topics such as integrating IMRs with industrial automation applications.

Lines are blurring between automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated mobile robots (AMRs), he said during the session, preferring the term “IMR.”

When building a business case for mobility in industrial applications, return on investment (ROI) can vary with things such as labor availability and the cost of skilled workers, according to Bollinger. Transit alone is not a high-value task, so factory and warehouse operators should streamline end-to-end operations and deploy people to more valuable tasks, he added.

Companies may need help to get started with industrial mobile robots, said Bollinger in Chicago
Companies may need help to get started with mobile robots, said Bollinger in Chicago. | Source: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Basic terms for industrial mobile robots, IMR applications

There are many terms around industrial mobile robots, Bollinger said. He offered a primer to aid understanding for those new to IMRs:

  • AIV: Autonomous intelligent vehicle
  • Attachment: Component or mechanism integrated with a mobile platform
  • IMR Types A, B, C: See examples below
  • Manipulator: Automatically controlled multipurpose mechanism with three or more axes, such as a robot arm
  • Mobile platform: Assembled components that enable self-propelled movement
  • SGV: Smart (self) guided vehicle.

Autonomous forklifts, carriers that follow paths, service robots, and other vehicles may operate in industrial applications, but Bollinger said he would focus on mobile robots for industrial use.

Compared with AGVs, IMRs offer more flexibility, less infrastructure, a diversity of platforms, a wide array of attachments, and many quality vendors and solution providers, said Bollinger. He noted that such robots need to be integrated into other systems.

What are Types A, B and C of industrial mobile robots?

Bollinger explained IMR Types A, B and C.

Type A is just the industrial mobile robot without add-ons.

IMR Type B offers pallet movement with roller tops, lifts, stands, or forks. A fork counterbalance may be needed, depending on IMR design and possible loads. They can be used for transporting loads, staging manufacturing processes, and in supermarkets using rack storage.

Type B small material movements could include pick-and-place human or robotic support, raw materials transport, finished goods transport, samples and spare parts. Cart or stand movements can integrate a lift, include latch engagement, bring goods to a picker, or supply raw materials, Bollinger said.

AMRs can reduce changeover time between operations on a line. Machine and line interactions can include automatic load transfer, tote placement, material supply, and finished goods transport. Applications can be more challenging than they appear, Bollinger warned.

IMR Type C applications include sample collection, part picking, carton picking, machine tending, lab use, and teaching.

Bollinger classified tree types of industrial mobile robots and showed examples.
Bollinger classified tree types of IMRs and showed examples. | Source: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

Where to begin using industrial mobile robots

Where should someone begin when considering industrial mobile robots? Bollinger said to identify opportunities in end-to-end operations, such as a warehouse, factory floor, fulfillment, lab applications, and long route transportation.

In addition, consider simple pickup and dropoff areas, picking support, and repetitive tasks, as assistants are on demand or are often timed for changeover support.

Those who might need help with IMR applications could consider asking an equipment supplier, systems integrator, safety consultants, and firms providing training and support. These may be the same as the robot vendor or third-party companies, said Bollinger.

Manufacturers and systems integrators most follow different safety standards under the American National Standard for Industrial Mobile Robots — Safety Requirements: ANSI/RIA R15.08-1 / ANSI/ITSDF B56.5 / ANSI/RIA R15.06 – Industrial Mobile Robots Package. The robot safety standard includes Part 1 for manufacturing functions and Part 2 for system integrator functions.

Bollinger said the phrasing of the standards is function-specific, not organization-specific. An end user could be required to use either part of the standard, depending on the application.

Design considerations for IMRs may include what moved, where it goes, the environment of application area, systems with which the mobile robot will interface, and collaboration with other work in the area. How does the AMR or IMR know when it’s needed? What does the interface look like?

Design considerations include load size, weights, form, and stability (liquid in a container may create a motion control challenge). They also include other characteristics, such as liquid flammability, said Bollinger.

“Where” considerations include distance, routes, frequency, and charging locations. Mobile robots may require eight to 16 hours for some applications.

Environmental considerations include locations such as warehouse, factory, and/or other areas; temperature, humidity, dry, wet and dirty areas; and floor surface (smooth epoxy or cracked concrete) and ramps (which may influence load stability). Clearance considerations include aisle width, items in work or travel areas, doors, lifts and drop offs, and personnel doors.

They also include fire doors — Could fire doors close on an IMR? Where do IMRs go if there’s a fire? — and “cliffs,” like a loading dock, Bollinger said.

Designing IMR interfaces with other systems should include docking, charging, carts, machines, information technology (IT) and networking Wi-Fi coverage. In addition, mobile robots or their fleet management software may need to be integrated with warehouse management systems (WMS) and manufacturing execution systems (MES).

Coordination and cooperation may be required between IMRs and conveyors, machinery, manual fork trucks, and mixed fleets — not to mention human workers, Bollinger said.

Remember IMR management, interoperability needs

There are many general considerations and things to watch out for when applying IMRs to industrial environments, Bollinger said. The mobile robot market is growing rapidly, and skill levels vary.

Standards are evolving and catching up with technologies. Interoperability is also emerging as a concern for environments with robots from multiple vendors, said Bollinger.

The quality of IMR products differs, so expectations and results may differ, he said.

Scope creep is a challenge with nearly any complex industrial automation project, warned Bollinger. Operators should begin with estimating fleet size, which can be challenging because of multiple shifts, charging, and maintenance requirements.

In industrial environments, other activities can block robots, machine interfaces and require traffic management. Does the IMR vendor see and understand all usual circumstances that may be present in the application? These include robots blocking the way, machine interfaces, and traffic management. Increasing fleet size may not be practical or meet the need.

An industrial mobile robot can deliver materials and remove finished product from machines to help operators increase throughput.
Machine tending assistance: An IMR can deliver materials and remove finished product from machines to help operators increase throughput, suggested Bollinger | Source: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering

IMR connectivity, safety, environment

Connectivity issues can vary widely in industrial applications, and Wi-Fi coverage can vary. Wi-Fi losses can decrease IMR throughput for a site, changing the ROI. Site IT department requirements for IMR may include server management, cloud connectivity, and cybersecurity. WMS and MES interfaces can be costly, Bollinger noted.

IMRs can change safety considerations across an environment. Some products may not meet standards required. For instance, is scaffolding with thin legs visible to IMR lidar sensors? Skills and experience of vendors can vary, and this may introduce unexpected risks, said Bollinger.

As for clearance and clutter, IMRs may have more clearance than manual jacks, he said. Some layouts may not accommodate clearance needed for full-speed IMR operations.

Humans can identify debris, but IMRs may stop if they do not recognize that something in the way. When handling clutter, AMRs are better than AGVs because they can adjust paths, Bollinger said. For mixed fleets, more sensing may be needed, he said.

Travel paths can be complicated, requiring coordination of operations Blind corners necessarily slow mobile robot speeds, and manual forklifts are unpredictable, noted Bollinger. Designated travel paths have space requirements.

Before manual operations begin in an IMR area, Bollinger said, organizations should analyze collaboration and co-location.

Editor’s Note: This article was syndicated from Automated Warehouse sibling site Control Engineering.

Written by

Mark T. Hoske

Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.