The cavernous Ford Motor Co. assembly facility in Almussafes-Valencia, Spain, is one of the most innovative factories in Europe, and plant managers there are always looking for ways to improve efficiency by automating manual processes.
The body and stamping plant has multiple industrial robots working on its busy assembly line, where 2,000 vehicles per day are produced, including the popular Kuga, Mondeo and S-Max. But the delivery of fresh industrial and welding materials to the various robot stations were being handled manually, a repetitive and time-consuming task for Ford employees that added no value.
Ford began investigating the use of internal logistics robots to transport materials from the warehouse section of the 300,000-square-meter facility to the factory floor. Ford had several requirements: the robot had to be easy to program, easy for plant staffers to operate, and it had to be able to safely navigate the plant floor autonomously.
“For us, it was important that the robots had one key feature – that for the navigation of the robot, no external elements were needed, such as external beacons, magnets or tapes on the ground,” said Miguel Montana, a maintenance control analyst for Ford. The robot had to avoid unforeseen obstacles, modify its route or stop when necessary and work safely alongside people and other vehicles in the plant, such as forklifts.
Around 18 months ago, Ford purchased its first collaborative robot from Denmark-based Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR). “The first one that arrived at our factory was baptized with the name Survival because it has survived in a very hostile environment,” said engineering manager Eduardo Garcia Magraner.
He added, “We programmed it to learn the entire plant and this, together with the sensors with which it is equipped, means that it does not need any external help to circulate safely.” Ford conducted initial tests of the MiR 100, and Garcia Magraner reports that “it worked flawlessly and has become a very valuable member of the team. Hopefully, we can take it to other Ford facilities,” he adds.
Flexibility for a variety of applications
The MiR 100 is designed to carry up to 220 pounds (100 kg) of materials, and the robot can be mounted with customized top modules such as bins, racks, lifts, conveyers, or even a collaborative robot arm. In other words, it can be set up to handle a variety of specific applications, depending on business needs.
For example, Teamvantage, an injection molding and contract manufacturer, recently implemented a MiR100 robot with a hook at its warehouse in Forest Lake, Minn. “Teamvantage recently embarked on a warehouse optimization project, part of which was to implement an autonomous robot to efficiently transport product between our warehouse and production floor and to enable our employees to focus on more value-added tasks,” said Kelly Stichter, general manager at Teamvantage. “The MiR solution was most appealing for our application due to its ease of use, including mapping features and web-based interface; its flexibility, the available hook accessory and small footprint; and its safety features, which include cameras, sensors and sounds. Another plus was the simplicity of its design (that is, use of standard components) that makes it easy to maintain.”
At the Ford Spain facility, “One of the first applications that we developed with the MiR autonomous collaborative robot was to transport spare parts for production equipment from the warehouse to the production lines. And now we can say that Survival has survived in this hostile environment and today continues to distribute these items from the warehouse to the production lines,” said Garcia Magraner.
The MiR robot was equipped with an automated shelving system with 17 slots to accommodate materials of different weights and sizes. To avoid errors, the opening and closing of these slots is automated, meaning that operators in each area only have access to the materials assigned to them. “The incorporation of the MiR robots has allowed us to turn a routine distribution of spare parts into a highly qualified job,” said Helios Alvarez, plant manager.
Tests conducted by Ford showed that one mobile robot alone frees up 40 manhours per day, allowing workers to dedicate themselves to more complex tasks. Today, Ford Spain has three MiR robots in operation.
The ease of use of the mobile robots has proven to be especially valuable. “The robot is well configured so that it can be used by anyone, even if they are not familiar with the world of collaborative mobile robots,” said Garcia Magraner. “The system is very user-friendly, as the three MiR robots have their own routes throughout the extensive factory area.”
The MiR robots are the first collaborative autonomous mobile robots to be used in a Ford production plant in Europe, but that may change as other plants recognize the benefits. “The satisfaction we have achieved with the implementation of these three MiR robots in the distribution of industrial materials is allowing us to open new fields of expansion to incorporate new MiR robots with the scope of the Body and Stamping plant and even going beyond to other areas within the factory,” said Alvarez. “We have been able to demonstrate that these robots are capable of learning their way by themselves and also interacting perfectly well with our employees and forklift trucks or any other moving element with total safety.”
MiR purchase considerations
Edward Mullen, vice president of sales at MiR, said the Ford implementation is significant because it signals that the world’s largest and most successful manufacturers are choosing to deploy autonomous mobile industrial robots for intra-logistic functions.
He said companies considering MiR robots should identify business needs and specific use cases that can deliver the fastest ROI. “The big thing is understanding what the customer wants to do,” said Mullen.
Beyond the technology itself, companies need to think about how the robot will interface with existing business processes and a variety of stakeholders need to be brought into the conversation, including IT managers, change management personnel, business process leaders, and line operators on the factory floor. The rollout process includes pilot projects, training, followed by full implementations. Mullen said the mapping of the environment can be completed within a day, and the user interface of screens and buttons can be quickly and easily mastered by employees.
Pepe Perez, corporate communications manager at Ford Spain, sums it up this way: “We are proud to have one of the most innovative factories in Europe and to be pioneers in the use of collaborative mobile robots for the distribution of industrial materials that allows us to be more efficient in our intra-logistics.”