Fraunhofer IPA: Successfully implementing tomorrow’s automation today

At this year’s automatica, the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA is presenting eleven exhibits that show how companies can implement automation solutions at the highest level. The range of exhibits is diverse: It is aimed at companies with existing applications that want to optimize them and at companies that want to implement completely new applications. For each project stage, there are exhibits that enable the successful implementation of that very stage.

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Step 1: Assess feasibility technically and economically.

Many companies want to automate, but fear technical and economic misjudgments. For this purpose, Fraunhofer IPA has been offering the “Automation Potential Analysis” (APA) for years. For this compact project format, the APA development team goes directly to the companies, analyzes the status quo and determines an objective “Fitness for Automation” of the production processes under investigation. The APA has already been used by over 500 customers worldwide for a wide range of automation projects relating to assembly. Now it is also available for welding processes. “This provides companies with a systematic basis for decision-making that significantly reduces investment risk,” explains Lorenz Halt, group manager at Fraunhofer IPA.

So far, the APA has been linked to the expertise of the experts at Fraunhofer IPA. At the trade show, it will also be available as an app from licensing partner Evia. Companies can thus analyze an application themselves that they might want to automate. In addition to the assembly and welding applications, the team is currently developing an APA for machine loading and logistics.

And even outside of production halls, more automation is often desired. That is why a group at Fraunhofer IPA is dedicated to developing robust, autonomous outdoor navigation for the challenges of typical outdoor environments. Outdoor intralogistics, agriculture or forestry are examples of potential environments. A central challenge in this navigation is the different light and weather conditions as well as underground accessibility and obstacles. For example, in intralogistics processes between factory buildings, obstacles such as cable bridges, gully grids, potholes or steps and landings can present difficulties for autonomous systems. At the booth, the prototype outdoor robot CURT_mini will demonstrate how such difficulties can be solved by coordinated hardware and software and how intralogistics can also be successfully implemented in outdoor areas.

The exhibit is linked to a comprehensive range of consulting services on the sensible use of autonomous mobile robots (AMR) in indoor and outdoor areas. Fraunhofer IPA can look back on a long history of success with its navigation software. One example can be found in the production of an automobile manufacturer. In 2014, free-driving automated guided vehicles (AGVs) using the institute’s software were used here for the first time. At the trade fair booth, such an FTF with a car on it will catch the eye of visitors – as evidence and symbol of the successful technology transfer, which also led to a spin-off.

From the field back into the production halls it goes with the exhibit “DesignChain”: It addresses the current requirement that the industry must produce increasingly customer-individual products economically and in ever shorter time. In order to survive in global competition, the so-called “DesignChain” is recommended. “This means that technical order processing is digitalized throughout, from the order to the finished product,” says Jonas Krebs, co-developer of the exhibit. The effort required for production preparation is halved as a result. Guests at the Fraunhofer booth can use the exhibit to configure an individual product, which is subsequently generated as a CAD model, simulated ready for production and then scheduled for 3D printing.

Step 2: Create viable concepts.

Successful technology transfers need watertight planning and conceptual design. Because if work is not done properly in this project phase, it usually takes revenge in the form of unexpected costs and additional effort later in the project. In order to provide targeted support for this project phase, Fraunhofer IPA is presenting a solution focused on functional safety (safety) as well as the planned spin-off “IntRAC” for implementing assembly cells with robots.

Safety concepts can have an unfavorable impact on the cycle time of a robot application. This can be improved with the “Robo-Dashcam” exhibit. For this, a camera records safety-relevant data and persons in compliance with data protection regulations while the robot cell is in operation. Based on this data, the safety concept can then also be adjusted subsequently to increase the performance or cycle time of the application. “We measure the optimized robot performance and can reduce safety distances. This is how we show the success of the project and the effectiveness of our Robo-Dashcam,” shares Aulon Bajrami from Fraunhofer IPA, who helped develop the application. Up to ten percent more productivity and a 54 percent reduction in risk assessment time are possible.

The Robo-Dashcam is part of CARA, the “Computer-Aided Risk Assessment,” which the institute uses to help companies create safety concepts systematically and semi-automatically and enable performance improvements. Since the institute has already been active in international standardization for 15 years, all its developments also incorporate the latest findings from this committee work.

With its planned spin-off “intRAC” (intelligent Robotic Assemby Cell), Fraunhofer IPA offers a modular automation solution, especially for economical cable and connector assembly, even for small batch sizes. “Our offering addresses the needs of small and medium-sized companies by allowing the modular robotic cell to be flexibly and quickly adapted to different products. This enables companies to manufacture different variants with just one system and thus make predictable investment decisions,” says Arik Lämmle from the founding team, describing the value proposition. In this way, intRAC directly addresses companies that usually have no knowledge about robots and are particularly hard hit by the shortage of skilled workers and high labor costs. Expert knowledge from now 15 years around assembly automation and software development for this area flows into the spin-off.

Step 3: Ensure technical feasibility experimentally or by simulation.

Once the basic idea has been secured and a concept for application realization is available, the next step is to test the feasibility. Fraunhofer IPA also offers exemplary exhibits at the booth for this project step.

One of them is “AI Picking”, the AI-based handle-in-the-box. With this, the development team from Fraunhofer IPA is addressing precisely the technical hurdles that still inhibit widespread use of the handle-in-the-box, despite its high economic potential. “The use of AI, or more precisely its subfield machine learning, makes the application more autonomous, faster and more robust,” says co-developer Marius Moosmann from Fraunhofer IPA, describing the AI-based added value. The two-part exhibit shows what this looks like in concrete terms. One part with a classic handle-in-the-box demonstrates how objects from boxes with mixed contents are reliably detected and gripped. In addition, snagging is automatically detected and the robot’s removal path is planned to dislodge the snag. The other part of the exhibit shows how different packs on a single-variety pallet are detected and gripped. A robot rearranges the packs to fit.

The range of services relating to the reliable gripping of virtually any object also includes virtual feasibility studies. Companies can thus have the feasibility of a grip-in-the-box application tested quickly and without investing in materials. They receive statements about the suitable cell layout, the hardware, the gripping capability of many workpiece geometries and further information such as possible cycle times, availability and grips per hour. Thus, a comprehensive analysis is available as a basis for decision-making.

In addition to gripping from a crate, more and more questions about depositing into a crate are reaching the experts at Fraunhofer IPA. This process is becoming increasingly important, especially due to booming online trade. The exhibit on “Bin Packing” demonstrates how this can also be fully automated. Tim Nickel, co-developer of the application, explains its advantages: “Without previously taught-in data on the objects, the robot system can grab free-forms in a space-saving manner and without packing patterns or pre-picking, and place them neatly in a box. With this, we achieve a five percent higher packing density and that with significantly reduced preparation efforts.” Guests can interact with the robot at the booth by handing it an object and it grabs and packs it without preparation. Feasibility studies in simulations are also possible for bin packing.

Step 4: Implement concepts in production.

Finally, Fraunhofer also offers extensive options for the final realization of an application. Fraunhofer IPA provides examples of what this can look like with three exhibits.

For example, the “pitasc” software addresses a common hurdle for assembly automation, namely the diversity of variants, which has so far been accompanied by high programming efforts. These expenses quickly make the use of robotics uneconomical. This is exactly where pitasc comes in: With the software, an assembly task no longer has to be programmed point by point. Instead, programming is done in a structured and modular way relative to the workpiece based on data provided by sensors on the robot. Prefabricated, reusable program modules help to implement particularly tricky, force-controlled assembly applications more quickly than before and enable efficient adaptation to new variants. “For example, the position of the robot, the fixtures and even the end effector can be changed without reprogramming,” says Anwar Al Assadi, group manager at Fraunhofer IPA, explaining the benefits of the pitasc solution.

Another approach to improving the planning and execution of an assembly operation is being pursued by a Fraunhofer IPA spin-off. The start-up is developing the artificial intelligence (AI)-based software “Assemblio” Assembly Suite, which analyzes and evaluates CAD STEP files. Any CAD system can generate these information-rich files. They provide the “3D analysis AI” with all the necessary information to accurately derive structured assembly information. A second component of Assemblio is the “Assembly Composer”, which reads the extracted assembly information and feeds it into an assembly planning tool. The tool displays assembly-relevant information in simplified graphical form, making assembly planning effortless and error-free. The AI assembly assistance “KIM” automatically and cost-effectively creates assembly assists for interactive support of the personnel. The assistance is variable and can be 2D or 3D based. Alexander Neb, CEO of the spin-off: “Initial user studies show a time saving of up to 92 percent when Assemblio is used.” The software will be commercially available starting this July.

A third example of successful application implementations is the CAPE® cleanroom system. This is a flexible cleanroom system that realizes air purity of ISO classes 1 to 9. Similar to tents, the CAPE® system can be set up and put into operation within a few hours or a few days. In recent years, scientists have expanded CAPE® into an entire product family. “The newest family member is our DryClean-CAPE®, which we are showing at automatica. It not only creates a clean production environment, but also one with very low humidity at the same time, for example a dew point of -50°C,” explains Frank Bürger, group manager at Fraunhofer IPA. DryClean-CAPE® is already in use in industrial battery cell production, but the technology is also crucial for automotive production or aerospace.

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