Somewhere in a large (for now still) empty hall on the Brainport Industries Campus, AGVs drive all over the place.
There is a docking station where goods enter and leave the factory. A pre-sorting area for tools where a robot accurately places the right drill bits on a machine. “It’s a logistics chain, but in miniature,” says Erik Vermeulen, Programme Manager at the fieldlab Advanced Manufacturing Logistics (AML). IO looks at the testlab. Vermeulen: “This is where we gather knowledge about all logistic processes,” he says while a trolley automatically steers around him. “We are working on a real-life model with automatic vehicles and robotics to create a proof of concept that will increase the productivity of the entire chain.”
Robotics and automatic vehicles are the future, according to Vermeulen. “You can already see this happening in part at factories that produce in high volumes, where it’s relatively easy to implement this because the production has a fixed pattern. This does not apply to companies on campus, where products come from the factory in small series or where customers want a variation on a product. Vermeulen: “As a result, production doesn’t follow a fixed pattern. Several companies are often involved in such a complex process. ASML, for example, has more than ten different suppliers. In this fieldlab, we want to find out how we can develop a modular system that can be adapted to suit different companies and their wishes.”
According to the Programme Manager, the challenge does not lie in technology, which is mostly ready for it. The real problem lies in IT and communication. Because how do you ensure that different brands of AGVs ‘talk’ to each other? “We have now reached the point where we can have two brands driving together. A third brand has already been invited to come and test. We want to develop a technical interface that makes it possible for different machines from different brands to work together.”
KMWE is currently testing an AGV with a robotic arm to change tools automatically. The automatic vehicle must be able to communicate with the production machine so that it ‘knows’ that new drills are coming. The arm also has to work accurately with the trolley. Vermeulen: “Whether AGVs have to be operated by different companies, they must also have access to different WiFi networks. They have to let doors ‘know’ that they want to pass through. This is not standard, almost every machine has its own way of communicating. If we solve that, we can shorten the turnaround time considerably, which means that companies can deliver faster.”
To come up with even quicker solutions, they use simulations at the testlab. Here, they test different scenarios in a virtual world. For example, can an AGV transport six pallets instead of three and what impact does this have on the rest of the warehouse? “Some machines are too expensive to buy for a test environment, then a digital copy offers a solution. You can add all kinds of processes in a virtual environment to check whether a product or part actually passes through the factory faster. In such a model, you can calculate exactly how fast a product travels from A to B in a safe way. You don’t have to adjust anything in the physical world to do this. But you have to be sure that this is correct, perhaps an AGV reacts differently to people than is stated in the model, which is why we never assume information from simulations alone.”
Ultimately, the fieldlab’s knowledge and efforts should enable logistics – from incoming goods to outgoing products and everything in between – to be done faster, cheaper and with fewer actions. “Exactly how much faster? That’s looking into a crystal ball and I’m not a big supporter of that. I estimate that the average turnaround time reduces with dozens of percents. With the knowledge we build up here, we get more insight into the right solution, that’s the most important thing at the moment.”
The right solution will be here soon, Vermeulen knows: “We are in a Walhalla of ecosystems here. Not only there are very strong companies from the manufacturing industry working closely together here, but also students who think along with you and a government that supports that. This all comes together in various fieldlabs that implement techniques to make a fully automated factory possible. Logistics is the heart of the factory, which is why we also work together with the other fieldlabs.”