Flexible, modular robotic assembly lines that can quickly adjust to meet production demands could soon give Ireland an edge in manufacturing.
Work has already begun on an €800,000 R&D programme to develop autonomous robots for “the assembly line of the future”.
This innovative project brings together researchers at software research institute Lero, IT Tralee and UL — working with automotive electrical systems manufacturer Kostal.
Funding for the research is being backed by Science Foundation Ireland.
The partners will develop autonomous systems for Kostal’s power electronic products for electric vehicles at its plant in Abbeyfeale. Kostal employs 900 people in Ireland at its two plants in Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, and Mallow, Co Cork.
Central to the project will be the development of KostalRovers, smart autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs) — or robots — that will operate independently on the manufacturing floor. The broader impact for the reputation of Irish manufacturing could be significant.
“There is a common misconception that Ireland, due to its high cost base, cannot be a manufacturing centre. The reality is that the development of increased automation technologies such as this Kostal programme can drive the creation of more profitable and efficient manufacturing in Ireland,” said Joseph Walsh, head of the School of STEM and Lero researcher at IT Tralee, head of the programme.
This point is echoed by Daniel Riordan, manager of ImaR Technology Gateway, IT Tralee. While the project is built around Kostal’s goals, the intellectual property from the research will remain with the colleges and could see the knowledge adapted for other manufacturing operations.
“Traditionally, a production line is one long line,” said Mr Riordan. “You have various processes linked together and something comes out the other end. What we’re working on for Kostal is a huge modular manufacturing system which will allow them to monitor autonomous vehicles as they ferry products between production systems, rather than all of the systems being linked.
“That way you can bring in extra production systems, or drop out production systems. For instance, when demand goes up, you can bring in extra production systems. Or you can drop production systems out when demand goes down, or if a production line is stopped.
The researchers will look at the challenges associated with the safe navigation and control of 20-plus AIVs as they operate on a single manufacturing floor.
“This will require adoption of the latest automation technologies such as Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT),” said Thomas Newe, Lero researcher at UL.
In order to achieve this, the research will include the sourcing and development of cost-effective mobile autonomous adaptive systems that are capable of robotic, autonomous operations.
The second research strand will include advanced data analytics, machine learning and scheduling using data from an array of sensors, created with a view to performing multi-modal predictions for the AIVs.
Kieran O’Donoghue, assembly and test manager, Kostal Ireland, added: “While automated assembly and robotics already exist, our goal is to develop a more flexible spoke system implementing AIVs, to be known as KostalRovers. These will provide the flexibility to independently distribute work across lines to better manage volume fluctuations and multiple products compared to the traditional fixed linear production line.”
President of IT Tralee, Dr Oliver Murphy, said: “For the past century, employment opportunities created by this progressive, family-owned business have been a great boost for Kerry and the south west region. For IT Tralee, this means facilitating work placement students seeking hands-on industry experience and permanent employment for IT Tralee graduates.
Professor Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the Government, added: “Programmes such as this will boost the knowledge base in Ireland in the important area of flexible autonomous systems, which will ultimately bring economic benefit. Lero, the Irish Software SFI Research Centre combines the expertise in sensor research in IT Tralee and machine learning from the University of Limerick to address the requirements of the autonomous systems community in Ireland.”
This Kostal project is the third major announcement this year by Lero on research into autonomous systems.
In February of this year, Lero researchers based at NUI Galway announced a driverless cars’ programme with Valeo to help AIVs to better navigate in complex, real world conditions using sensor signal processing technology.
Back in January, the Lero research team at IT Tralee announced a new €2m R&D project with Dairymaster. This project aims to develop autonomous systems to ease workload on the dairy farm.