Navigating The Path To Seamless Interoperability Of Industrial Robotics, Autonomous Mobile Robots And Automated Guided Vehicles

Navigating the path to seamless interoperability of industrial robotics, autonomous mobile robots and automated guided vehicles

Oct. 19, 2023
How to overcome the challenges of standards and scaling when integrating AGVs and AMRs with factory machinery

A Control Design reader writes: More factories are asking about how they can incorporate robotics or autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)/automated guided vehicles (AGVs) into their current production lines and machines. We work with electronics manufacturers, and some can have up to a dozen work cells for assembly with operators and machines from raw material to finished product. Our experience with robotics is limited to new development, where we can start from scratch. We’ve found it harder to integrate robotics into existing lines and work cells, and mobile transports are often limited to the manufacturer’s own specific fleet-management software. How do we begin to incorporate these technologies with our existing customers? What standards are guiding interoperability between robotics and machinery? How do we start small and scale slowly? And how do we accommodate customers looking for full-scale automation upgrades?

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Ensuring stable network communication requires strong Wi-Fi channels and open interfaces

For the coupling of AGVs/AMRs to the current production lines, the topic should be considered from several facets. On the one hand, the technical aspects, the conditions in the production and the people in the production play an essential role.

Production should be adapted accordingly for the use of AGVs/AMRs. As an example, one can mention the transport routes. Are the routes shared with forklifts, people and AGVs? This increases the challenges for the AGVs. Here, the human factor also plays an essential role when it comes to using AGVs effectively in the production environment. People need to be trained and prepared on the topic in this context.

From the technical perspective, before looking at the application layer, one must look at the network layer in the production environment. Often, interoperability between AGVs and production machines requires network protocols, which primarily use Wi-Fi technology.

Careful planning/adaptation of the Wi-Fi channels is important here. If, for example, these channels are already occupied, there are other possibilities for communication, such as the use of communication devices operating in other frequency bands such as 60 GHz. These can ensure stable communication between the AGVs and the production facility, as they operate outside the Wi-Fi frequencies.

To enable different systems to work together, the approach with standards and open source is future-oriented. To enable the use of different AGVs/AMRs from different suppliers underneath a fleet management system, the VDA 5050, a standardized interface for AGV communication, is important.

A fleet management system that supports the VDA 5050 will be able to operate AGVs/AMRs that also support the VDA 5050 interface. If the operator of the equipment relies on a standard such as the VDA 5050 from the beginning and demands this standard from suppliers, be it of the AGVs/AMRs or of the fleet management system, the operation will also have the openness and ability to scale production in the future.

Another possibility for interoperability between AMRs and production systems is to use the robot operating system (ROS). This open-source initiative enables the creation of AMRs or even collaborative robots (cobots). There are also open platform controllers that support an ROS bridge. This allows coupling the two worlds of machine control and AMRs/cobots in a simple way.

When AGVs/AMRs interact with production machines, the AGV/AMR is part of the machine, so, in this case, safety must also be considered. It is also a challenge that the production machines use different network-based safety protocols, such as ProfiSafe, CIP Safety or FailSafe over EtherCAT (FSOE). Here, the use of network-independent safety protocols can create a possibility to connect to different production machines. Many machine controllers now support OPC UA. An AGV/AMR with OPC UA interface can offer further coupling both for the exchange of non-safety data and also safety data via OPC UA Safety.

Özkan Öztürk / manager – system design AGV / Phoenix Contact Electronics

Existing communication protocols and developing standards will guide interoperability

Mobile robot interoperability is a topic that has recently gained significant attention in the world of AGVs and AMRs. The scenario you describe is a very common challenge for integrators focused on implementing these systems into an automated facility. In the past, this problem has been solved through the use of various types of robots, including AGVs that follow a predefined path and the freely navigating AMRs. These mobile robots may operate in designated areas or use sensor technology to avoid collisions and interrupt each other’s processes. A software-based traffic-management solution offers a major advantage in increasing efficiency and throughput while improving overall operation.

Whether you are starting small and scaling slowly or considering full-scale automation, there are some important topics to consider:

• How can these mobile robots be integrated into the existing external systems? Warehouse management system (WMS), enterprise resource planning (ERP) or IoT devices.

• How do they interact with current human-operated processes? Collaborative robots, human-machine interfaces (HMI) and associated safety measures.

• How can we manage robots from different suppliers and manufacturers to achieve heterogeneous fleet management? The idea is to manage mobile robots from different suppliers and manufacturers in an interoperable manner. The goal is to allow the robots to exchange critical information such as location data and task progress to ensure efficient collaboration.

Fundamentally, there are several communication protocols that are typically used to exchange information. These include REST API, ROS, ZeroMQ, data distribution service (DDS), message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) and OPC UA. All of these options allow the robots to communicate with each other and with existing software programs.

When it comes to standardizations for mobile-robot interoperability, there are several in development that will quickly gain momentum in the next few years. The idea is, as long as the AGV/AMR fleet meets these standards, they can work together using a single traffic management software. Europe’s VDA 5050 is the most well-known of these standards, while MassRobotics is a U.S.-based platform with the same goal.

Finally, there are already existing software packages that can be used for the interoperability of mobile robots. Some examples include Linux-based Red Hat and Ubuntu and ROS-based MOV.AI.

Further research into these topics is required to determine which options best fit your current needs and requirements as you move forward with automating your processes. Hopefully this provides a brief overview of what is currently available and what is in the works regarding mobile-robot interoperability.

Zach Steck / market specialist / Pepperl+Fuchs

Robot programming and integration: majority of new application costs

These questions raise issues that are relevant to all sorts of automation projects, especially in the United States. In my experience, the technology used in U.S. manufacturing is often of an older date than that found in Europe and Asia and integrating new automation with old machinery can often present a challenge.

One of the first things to do is to look at the typical barriers to successful automation deployment. Besides the initial capital costs, the time it takes to set up and deploy the robot and the time it takes to redeploy the robot on another task can turn out quite costly for many companies.

In fact, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimates that programming and integration account for 50-70% of the cost of a typical robot application. This is due to the complexity of most robot programming systems and interfaces, which were designed for use by automation experts.

Look for systems that eliminate programming altogether by automating the deployment process. This will slash deployment time, improve ROI and, in many cases, make automation possible in facilities with little or no previous robotics experience. Moreover, look for plug-and-play hardware, such as grippers and other end-effectors; this will further reduce the time it takes to get your automation up and running.

These systems make automation easy to deploy, but the manufacturer’s journey into automation is not going to happen overnight. My recommendation is to take it one step at a time, look at the process, isolate it, automate it and then move on to the next process, isolate it and then automate it and then keep scaling like that.

Taking the path of least resistance, which when it comes to automation adoption is also the path that’s most likely to lead to success, means starting small. For many applications, this involves exploring options with lightweight industrial and collaborative-robot (cobot) arms. These robots provide the easiest way to get set up with automation, and they are compatible with the fully automated deployment systems described above.

Noted for their small footprint, cobots can be incorporated into manufacturing processes without wholesale changes being required to the factory floor. In addition, following a risk assessment, cobots and lightweight industrial robot arms can be deployed right beside human workers without the need for guarding. Due to this combination of affordability, safety and ease of use, cobots enable companies to scale automation at their own pace and without breaking the bank.

Finally, keep in mind that there are companies out there that focus on retrofitting old machinery so that it can send signals back and forth to robotics or other automation equipment. So, if all else fails, it’s a comfort to know that there are specialist companies out there that solve interoperability issues for a living.

Kristian Hulgard, general manager – Americas / OnRobot

About the Author

Anna Townshend | Managing Editor

Anna Townshend has been a writer and journalist for 20 years. Previously, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and International Dredging Review, until she joined Endeavor Business Media in June 2020. She is the managing editor of Control Design and Plant Services.