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Mobile robots: Next-level automation for machine tools

Industrial companies face increasing pressures, from price increases to a shortage of skilled workers. In a pilot project, KUKA Robotics joined with HELLER, a producer of CNC machine tools, to develop a mobile robot that meets these challenges. This intelligent application automatically loads and unloads machines with tools to relieve employees.

Automation for machine loading still in its infancy

Individual customer requirements – including high-mix, low-volume production at high speed – pose challenges for industrial companies, along with a shortage of skilled workers and rising prices for raw materials and services. Automation can solve these problems, and many forms of automation already are well advanced, including palletizing, handling and assembly tasks, and workpiece machining. But flexible and automated loading and unloading of machines with tools remains in its infancy. Together with KUKA, the globally active HELLER Group has launched and implemented a pilot project that aims to close this specific gap.

Autonomous mobile robot carries out machine tending

An autonomous mobile robot can increase productivity and optimize the production process.

Concentrated robotics expertise for more automation

“This area offers a lot of potential,” said Robert Eber, who leads pallet and robot automation at HELLER. “It’s not just about automating in front of the machine, but behind it as well.”
HELLER manufactures state-of-the-art CNC machine tools and machining production systems at five worldwide production sites. Founded in Nürtingen, Germany in 1894, the company serves numerous companies in general mechanical engineering, energy technology, fluid technology, the aerospace industry, the automotive industry and their suppliers, as well as many other industries. HELLER already had used robot-based solutions from KUKA for other tasks, but the two companies collaborated for the first time during the pilot project to develop a marketable robot-based machine-loading application.

HELLER focuses on a customer-specific solutions and, therefore, on automation technology.

Highly flexible: machine tending with mobile robots

The two companies launched the project in the spring of 2021. The collaboration began by finding out which manual processes can be automated and where the limits lie, and found the right processes after overcoming several challenges. “We contacted HELLER and asked whether they saw a need for mobile robotics, and a direct ‘yes’ was the answer. This then gave rise to initial ideas and concepts, and ultimately produced our pilot project,” said Steffen Günther, KUKA Global Business Development Manager.

Mobile robots for greater productivity

Here's how the solution works: employees provide information from production orders so a CERTA host computer can determine which tools a machine needs. The solution then orders a KUKA KMR CYBERTECH robot to fetch the appropriate tools from the warehouse. The mobile platform, driven by omnidirectional technology and with a KR CYBERTECH installed onboard, takes care of machine tending. “We have a maximum weight of up to 20 kilograms for the tool holder, so the KMR CYBERTECH was the optimal product for this,” noted Steffen Günther. The robot arm grips the relevant tools, places them on the appropriate fixtures on the platform, and the journey continues from there.

The automated solution eliminates the need for an employee to walk to the machine and insert the tools. This enables us to shift the focus of manual work.

Robert Eber, Team Leader for Industrial Pallet and Robot Automation at HELLER

The advantages of mobile robots

The KMR CYBERTECH brings tools to the correct machine and places them where they are needed. “The automated solution eliminates the need for an employee to walk to the machine and insert tools. This enables us to shift the focus of manual work,” Robert Eber explained. In this solution, the KMR CYBERTECH not only takes care of loading and unloading, but also handles exchanges. For example, when the host computer receives information about a worn tool, the platform makes its way to the relevant machine. The tool is unloaded and removed, and the system fetches a new tool to insert into the machine.

The robot can learn to operate the machine tool.

Autonomous mobile robot working with the system

During the development of this solution for automated machine tending, communication among all the systems involved was particularly challenging. “Which data are available at what time and where? The biggest challenge for us was the interfaces for data exchange,” said Robert Eber. After several tests, the combined automation expertise of KUKA and HELLER found a suitable way for the mobile platform to do more than just move from point A to point B. The platform now receives the necessary information on an as-needed basis, which enables it to know exactly what to do at any given time.

Mobile robotics can perform this work 24/7, so skilled workers can focus on their competencies and more value-added activities.

Steffen Günther, Global Business Development Manager at KUKA

Flexibility for the user

The pilot program also implemented a second requirement. “We wanted to change as little of the manual operation as possible,” Eber noted. “That is, employees should still be able to insert tools and manage data if necessary.”
Flexible and automated: mobile robots not only transport workpieces, they also load machines with tools.

Customer inquiries for robots working together with machine tools

The completed project confirms the feasibility of the automation process. The communication functions properly, and now, both humans and robots can load machines with tools. “We are now monitoring the market and are ready to respond to customer inquiries,” Eber emphasized.

For KUKA, this was the first major project to use mobile robotics with machine-tool automation. Steffen Günther is convinced that this will offset the shortage of skilled workers and strengthen industrial companies, noting that “Mobile robotics can perform this work 24/7, so skilled workers can focus on their competencies and more value-added activities.” With the foundation in place, the collaboration with HELLER already has generated initial customer projects and offers. The task now is to integrate this forward-looking project with other tool manufacturers.
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