Making hard things easy – A safety solution for a mobile heavy-load robot

In modern production facilities, humans and robots are brought into even closer proximity. Safety fences are disappearing and robots which can be moved to any location are required in order to implement flexible yet safe automation solutions in the era of Industry 4.0. Swedish robot company OpiFlex has developed a solution which means that even large industrial robots can now be made mobile – it features a patented fenceless safety solution and is made safe using safety devices from SICK.

 

 

“Together with SICK, we have mastered the challenge of automating small series manufacturing as well as flexible high volume manufacturing,” says OpiFlex CEO Johan Frisk. “It was very important for us to have a solution without fences, as this provides our customers with a lot more flexibility”. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in particular are keen to automate the production of small series, which has been difficult before based on the use of traditional, less flexible fixed and fenced robots cells. Now this kind of automation is possible thanks to the OpiFlex flexible mobile robot cells with fenceless safety and easy robot programming. 

With the help of a manual pallet forklift truck, lifting truck, or automated guided vehicle, the mobile OpiFlex robot is moved to the relevant workstation in a production facility. It is docked and plugged into a previously installed platform and is then ready for immediate use. “This allows us to move large robots and let them run at full speed,” says Frisk.

 

 

Safe Robotics from SICK makes the robots safe

Two S300 Mini Remote safety laser scanners from SICK are permanently mounted on the mobile robot cell and detect people near the station at the respective application sites. If a person approaches the robot, the safety laser scanner sends a signal to the Flexi Soft safety controller and the robot reduces its speed in the first instance. The robot only stops operating completely if the person enters the safety zone. This increases productivity as the robot does not always have to be stopped completely. The Flexi Soft safety controller also monitors the robot gripper and stops the robot as soon as a situation occurs in which the robot could lose parts and thus endanger the surroundings.

If the robot is easily moved to another location, the safety solution also checks whether the mobile robot cell is firmly anchored in the respective docking station. The robot and docking station are perfectly matched for high precision and stability. “Our solution is innovative because it is very easy to integrate. Everything is included. You take the robot, set it in the right place, and everything is made safe straight away,” says Ake Tornros, Product Manager Safety Systems from SICK in Varby, Sweden.

 

 

Safety Services – advice from the word “go”

In the beginning, Johan Frisk and his OpiFlex team were mostly met with skepticism. “We had this innovative idea to develop a mobile solution with fenceless safety for a big robot, and at first people said, ‘That’s impossible. You won’t comply with the safety regulations,” says Frisk, describing the initial challenges. But the inventors at OpiFlex did not want to give up so quickly and contacted the SICK safety experts – and together, they were eventually able to develop the right concept.

“Over the course of a few workshops, SICK helped us to identify potential risks,” explains Frisk. The support provided by SICK included the risk assessment, comprehensive advice, and support in creating a safety concept for the mobile robot cell, so that in the end they were able to implement the right solution for OpiFlex. “It was a very exciting project for us. From the initial risk assessment to the hardware and software concept, we supported the customer throughout the entire process,” says SICK expert Tornros.

 

 

The era of Industry 4.0: Solving the challenge of high mix and low volume

The new mega trend with high mix and low volumes drives the new third robot revolution, also known as "flexible robots". Flexible robots support SMEs, Tier1 companies, as well as OEMs with increased flexibility and productivity for both small series manufacturing and high volume production. The OpiFlex flexible robot cells were initially created for SMEs with small series and low machine utilization. Now, a high number of large corporations, OEMs, and Tier1 companies, have expressed their increased need for flexibility as they go towards higher mix and lower volumes. Some of these companies also want to use an OpiFlex solution for high volume manufacturing as it is much faster to integrate and set up when required at a new machine. Or they need flexibility in robot cells in cases where you have, e.g., five robots for one product and two robots for another product.

Furthermore, OpiFlex enables the robot to be programmed extremely quickly without prior robot knowledge – in about ten minutes. Instead of programming the robot for several hours, the operator only has to answer a few questions and teach the robot a few simple movements, then it will program itself automatically. 

 

 

One of the challenges for Tier1 companies and OEMs working with three to five shifts is to plan production stops for adjusting or implementing new automation solutions. Traditional robot cell implementations usually stop the manufacturing process for more than ten days, which means loosing up to 30 to 50 shifts. OpiFlex reduces the installation and commissioning time of a complete robot cell by up to 90% - so it takes about two to three shifts only. Especially within a tight production schedule, it is of great advantage that the planning of automated implementation becomes easier due to a minimized loss of production.

The Swedish company has already won several awards for its innovations, including being named as a finalist for the IERA Award, one of the most important awards in robotics. CEO Johan Frisk concludes: “As we are a small, innovative company, SICK played a big part in helping us to achieve our goals. I am very proud to have teamed up with SICK for support to design this flexible and mobile robot solution, which will help small and medium-sized companies in particular to automate smaller production series.” The aim of OpiFlex is to drive the third robot revolution "flexible robots", with its patented fenceless solution, patented easy robot programming, and patented docking solutions. This solution is very flexible and cost-efficient compared to traditional robot cells – and it is powered by SICK products

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Technical Industry Manager at SICK, Josef Zimmermann has been intensively involved in the topic of robotics – a fundamental component of Industry 4.0.