The rise of advanced robotics in industrial manufacturing
Customization and flexibility are two of the hottest words in industrial manufacturing right now. Customers want something made just for them, whether it is a personalized aftershave with their name on the bottle, a vehicle with all the features they need and none they don’t, or a new phone with the latest radio antenna for 5G connectivity. All this customization leads to one conclusion – manufacturing is moving towards high-mix production and making millions of different products in very small lots.
At the same time, many products made today are far too complicated for established automation technologies alone, forcing manufacturers to augment traditional robotics with manual assembly by human laborers. People are valued for their ability to understand and account for changes in a process very quickly. But what if this flexibility were included in automated processes?
A flexible and automated (even autonomous) production system is the Holy Grail for many manufacturers wishing to overcome the challenge of growing product complexity and simultaneously meet demands for greater customization. The ability to rapidly switch production from one product to another will be a defining feature of businesses on the path to lot sizes of one and the highly customizable products of tomorrow.
Small lot sizes are not inherently a problem, but current production processes cannot easily accommodate this without large investments in an increasingly complex infrastructure. To avoid this problem of exponential investments, which may or may not solve the problem, many businesses are looking for a more flexible approach to production. How can manufacturers make multiple products efficiently with minimal changes to the production floor between products?
Advanced robotics is the answer, and many companies are already on the path to adoption.
The Advanced Robotics Journey
Many factory floors rely on conveyor belt networks to transport everything from raw material to final products. But these networks were not designed to handle thousands of different products going to the constantly changing locations needed in a multi-product manufacturing process. What if a conveyor system could change? Perhaps change paths to avoid congested areas in a factory? Or change destinations to deliver a work piece to the optimal machining station?
These are the kinds of problems advanced robotics solves with the use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in tandem with an advanced software, solutions and application development platform.
Typically, the goal of using the robots is to deliver material from point A to point B with relative ease. But it is not as simple as just introducing AGVs or AMRs to a facility. Much of the investment value comes from the optimization and coordination of the advanced robotic technologies. In our experience, helping companies adopt advanced robotics into their manufacturing processes is a four-stage journey.
Stage one, or the Entrant stage, is defined by the use of fixed automation robotics or similar technologies where most operations are programmed manually. All process planning is done by a human, possibly with the aid of software, and the tasks are then assigned to specific robots to function at specific locations and times. This approach works well when producing high volumes, when changes or modifications to a production line are kept to a minimum. Since every action of a robot is explicitly specified at this stage, the robot must be taken off-line when changes are required and manually reprogrammed. This negatively impacts production times.
The second stage is for Veterans and is the most common stage today for industrial manufacturers. It is characterized by the use of the digital twin for complete system validation and for building control algorithms for the entire production line. Utilizing a digital twin of manufacturing provides deep insights on how to proceed in later stages of the journey by enabling the simulation of the entire facility. Significant productivity improvements at this stage can be achieved from concurrently updating multiple robots running off the same programmable logic controllers, reducing downtime on the production floor.
Progressing into the third or Pioneer stage, manufacturers can start automating more of the production process. Built on top of the insights learned from the digital twin and augmented with feedback from IoT sensors, task-based programming can be implemented for robots throughout the facility. This greatly reduces the time needed to program robots to accommodate a design or process change. Simple commands can be used to automatically adjust the robot based on a closed-loop calibration between the physical environment and the digital twin.
The final stage, called the Visionary stage, is where advanced robotics initiatives become highly autonomous, delivering near complete autonomy of the robots. This is also where AGVs and AMRs become highly effective, replacing static conveyor belts and a linear process path with advanced, mobile robotics. Now production changes can almost be as simple as inputting the number of products required and how many variations are needed. From that information, the system will determine the optimal path of how to produce the desired lot.
Software now determines how many parts are needed from storage room B, for instance, or what machining station will be able to ramp up the fastest to produce the lot. And, if the primary choice is down for maintenance, what is the next best option. The limits of this do not end at the factory walls. The benefits extend beyond to include suppliers and distributers, helping produce the most efficient workload for the factory.
The Visionary stage is the optimal point for implementing AGVs and AMRs, due to complete factory simulations. But advanced robotics can be brought in earlier stages to execute tasks simpler than production scheduling. Some companies have adopted AGVs and AMRS as semi-autonomous picking carts for warehouses, where the robot follows and assists a human worker.
Depending on how the factory is run, there are nearly infinite ways to optimize the facility. That is why the investment in the comprehensive digital twin is so important for this journey. It allows deeper insights of how a factory is running, helping to confidently invest in the future of the business. Advanced robotics is part of Siemens’ Xcelerator portfolio of software, solutions and application development platform where today meets tomorrow for industrial manufacturing.
By: Rahav Madvil, Simulation Product Manager for Siemens Digital Industries Software, and Noam Ribon, Senior Business Consultant at Siemens Digital Industries Software.
Timeline: Tesla's Construction of Gigafactories
Tesla's mission to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy
Founded in 2003, Tesla was established by a group of engineers with a drive to "prove that people didn’t need to compromise to drive electric – that electric vehicles can be better, quicker and more fun to drive than gasoline cars." Almost 20 years on, Tesla today is not only manufacturing all electric vehicles, but scaleable clean energy generation and storage too.
"Tesla believes the faster the world stops relying on fossil fuels and moves towards a zero-emission future, the better," says Tesla. "Electric cars, batteries, and renewable energy generation and storage already exist independently, but when combined, they become even more powerful – that’s the future we want. "
In order to deliver on its promise of "accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy through increasingly affordable electric vehicles and energy products," Tesla's Gigafactory journey began in 2014 to meet its produciton goals of 500,000 cars per year (a figure which would require the entire worlds supply of lithium-ion batteries at the time).
By ramping up its production and bringing it in-house, the cost of Tesla 's battery cells declined "through economies of scale, innovative manufacturing, reduction of waste, and the simple optimisation of locating most manufacturing processes under one roof." With this reduction in battery cost, "Tesla can make products available to more and more people, allowing us to make the biggest possible impact on transitioning the world to sustainable energy."
2014: Giga Nevada and Giga New York begin construction
Born out of necessity to meet its own supply demand for sustainable energy, Tesla began the construction of its first Gigafactory in June 2014, in Reno, Nevada, followed by its Buffalo, New York facility the same year. "By bringing cell production in-house, Tesla manufactures batteries at the volumes required to meet production goals, while creating thousands of jobs," said Tesla.
2016: Reno, Nevada grand opening
Tesla’s construction of Giga Nevada came to an end in 2016, the first of its Gigafactories to complete its construction project. The factory’s grand opening took place in July 2016, and by mid-2018 reached an annual battery production rate of 20 GWh, which made it the highest-volume battery plant in the world that year.
2017: Giga New York begins production
Two years after Tesla’s second Gigafactory began construction, Giga New York was complete, and started its production operations in 2017.
2019: Giga Shanghai construction to production in record time
In 2019, Tesla selected Shanghai as its third Gigafactory location. The company constructed the factory in record time, taking just 168 working days from gaining permits to finishing the plant's construction.
2019: Giga Berlin begins construction
Announced in November 2019, Tesla began the construction of its first European Gigafactory in Berlin. The Gigafactory is still under construction.
2020: Giga Texas begins construction
The following year in August 2020, Tesla began the construction of its Giga Texas factory. The company’s third Gigafactory in the US is still under construction.
2021: Giga Texas and Giga Berlin expected completion of construction
Looking to the future, Tesla expects to complete the construction of its Giga Texas and Giga Berlin factories in May 2021 and July 2021 respectively.