The Assembly of Tomorrow, Brick by Brick

The assembly cells that we will find in factories, in an ever closer future, will be indeed flexible and readily adaptable, but above all modular, with production systems made of manifold units that are independent each other but easy to integrate as if they were Lego bricks. With the operators, who are really important in such a scenario, expected to dialogue with traditional, collaborative and AGV robots. All of this is part of Comau’s vision.

di Fabrizio Dalle Nogare

“Compared to a few years ago, the trends in the design of assembly systems are changing: there is no longer an obsessive search for fully automatic systems, but engineers are increasingly aware that purely human qualities such as reliability, adaptability and flexibility cannot be replaced”. Ugo Ghirardi, Global Solution Development Director of the Powertrain Assembly division at Comau, shared his thoughts with us during a chat in which we tried to outline the trends of assembly in the digital factory in an ever closer future. A future in which the products will be developed practically along with the lines; as a consequence, undergoing adjustments and changes will become the norm.

A collaborative support to the operator
“In the standardization process of our assembly systems that we have been carrying out at Comau for a few years, we try to provide the operator with a support in facing heavy and repetitive tasks”, explains Mr Ghirardi, relying on the meaning of the HUMANufacturing slogan that has marked the company’s presence, for example, at the Hannover Fair 2017. Right there, a Comau SmartRob automatic cell was displayed, equipped with two AGILE1500 AGVs and a high-payload collaborative robot, the AURA (Advanced Use Robotic Arm). These devices were connected wirelessly to each other in order to collect and manage the information generated by the PLCs. Looking for an even more complete and smart human-machine interaction, Comau has developed, in partnership with the company Engineering, a smartwatch capable of carrying out the first steps necessary to check and confirm the set-up and tracking the work cycle operations. The smartwatch also acts as a HMI available to the operator in order to interface with the automation.

The cyber-physical units
Speaking of cells and assembly lines, the concept of modularity will be increasingly crucial. This results in the need to have production systems made of modular units (the so-called cyber-physical units) independent each other, capable to work in synergy with the operators, connected in a network with other factory technologies and adaptable to any request for production process customization. “The basic idea to make these modules independent is to create systems that may join the various flexible stations, either automatic or manual”, continues Mr Ghirardi. “These kind of solutions are thus made up of three completely independent modules: we may call them logistic, process and operational modules. The process is therefore at the center of all this and consists of different operations (assembly, measurement, imaging, testing and so on). These may be carried out with the help of a traditional robot, which can be used with some tools that can be changed, searching for the highest flexibility”. To use an effective metaphor, these systems are made of several functional blocks, which can be integrated with each other as if they were Lego bricks. “The individual bricks, which are well defined, can be put together according to the customer’s requirements. Some other elements can be then inserted, such as robots, vertical axes and so on”.

What is the role of AGVs
Within the assembly cell, two Comau AGILE1500 AGVs move in complete autonomy, with different paths and speeds, two mechanical components for the automotive sector: an endothermic engine and an automatic hydraulic gearbox. Following a preset path, the first Comau AGV moves the motor nearby the AURA collaborative robot, which takes it through a collaborative gripper and, in a safe environment and within an ergonomic area, puts is close to the operator. The latter is then able to carry out quality control and accurate tasks. As soon as these activities are over, the engine is placed by the robot on the AGV, which moves it to the automated assembly station. Here, a Comau NJ4 110-2.2 robot performs some mechanical assembly operations. The second Comau AGILE1500, which carries the automatic hydraulic gearbox, moves through the cell in a continuous moving mode, that is to say with high sensitivity and at reduced speed, sharing an ergonomic environment with the operator. “It may not be a new product, but the various technologies (navigation, software, movement management) make the AGV particularly suitable for such a context. It is also quite simple to re-set for industrial or logistics environments. We keep on further developing the AGV to make the interaction between traditional and innovative systems easier and easier, aiming at improving ergonomics for the operator”, concludes Mr Ghirardi.