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Operator support

People play a prominent role in nearly all research into Industry 4.0. Human operators will also be at the centre of the manufacturing industry in the future. Various innovative technologies will be implemented to support operators at work, to counteract the increased complexity of production methods, making ‘work workable’ (https://www.werkbaarwerk.be/werkbaarwerk; website in Dutch). The technology can be roughly classified into two broad groups: technology that reduces the physical load (collaborative, cooperative and mobile robots that take over strenuous heavy, boring, dirty or stressful tasks); and technologies that reduce the cognitive load (digital working instructions, AR, VR, etc., by providing the operator with the right information at the right time and place). Sirris has launched various initiatives to inform manufacturing companies on the technology, to facilitate its adoption.

An Industry 4.0 testing ground offers digital support to operators

The Operator support Industry 4.0 testing ground focuses on innovative technology options in support of operators. A standardised approach was followed to inform manufacturing companies:

  • Demystifying, making technology understandable for manufacturing companies via publications, lectures and webinars: What does the technology do? What is the current status and maturity level? What are typical and useful applications? What is commercially available and what is still in the research phase? Which factors are to be taken into account in implementation?
  • Demonstrating the technology in a relevant industrial environment to ensure companies experience potential applications. 
  • Experimenting by organising hands-on workshops where companies can work with the technology.  

More and more SMEs are considering the implementation of autonomous mobile robots (AMR) to provide their employees with logistics support, but the effect of AMR on the organisation is significant. Sirris therefore developed a new demonstrator within the Operator support Industry 4.0 testing ground to demonstrate the feasibility and implementation of mobile robots.

As part of the testing ground project, Sirris organised a webinar on collaborative work cells and operator support with Flanders Make, Imec and VLAIO (Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship). The participants learned more about Industry 4.0 and digital working instructions, quantification and reduction of physical and mental stress, and safe collaboration with cobots.

Finishing using cobots

Finishing tasks, such as polishing, requires expertise. Experts are difficult to find. Most finishing work is also time-consuming, labour-intensive and monotonous work. Sirris is researching (semi-)automated finishing options.

Polishing to a mirror finish with a cobot

Good polishing experts are difficult to find and that is not about to change. The work requires knowledge and experience, is time-consuming, expensive, monotonous and is carried out in an insalubrious environment. The need for experts is especially high in the mould construction business. Sirris initiated this based on industrial demand to find out whether semi-automation using cobots would (partially) relieve polishing experts as part of the CoPolMould collective research project.

Sirris partnered with the German Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology (IPT) for this research. Sirris constructed a cobot polishing cell to research whether a cobot can be usefully deployed as a polishing tool for experts to use. The focus of the specific test was on the cobot polishing flat, slightly curved and significantly curved surfaces. ’Teach by demonstration’ programs were created so the operator could ‘show’ the cobot where to polish the surface. Configurable parameters ensure the specific magnitudes for the polishing process can be quickly adapted based on operator assessment.

The research shows that cobotised mirror polishing has potential. Read the research details and results at Techniline.

Automated sanding and deburring

The collective CoPolMould research project demonstrated the potential of cobotised polishing. Over the next few years, Sirris intends to invest further in improving the processes and further exploration of options to cobotise other finishing processes, such as sanding and deburring. A new COOCK project was set up in 2020: COBOFIN

The objective of the project is to introduce collaborative robots as assistants to work alongside an experienced operator. to accelerate the automated sanding and deburring of small sets of varied parts made of plastic and metal. Cobots ensure a practical approach to the automated post-processing of smaller sets and increase operator finishing capacity. This ensures companies can ensure the quality, competitiveness and pleasantness of these processes.

The collective research project focuses on sub-aspects such as: technology and the economic feasibility of cobots and force-controlled feedback for deburring and sanding of parts; the low-threshold programming of cobots for flexible deployment; and the integration of cobotised finishing tasks into an SME production environment.

Flexible automation for the food industry

The ColRobFood VIS project ended in mid-2020. This cooperation between Sirris and Flanders' FOOD aimed to accelerate the introduction of cobots into the food industry. The project target group consisted of both food manufacturers and integrators, and flexible automation technology suppliers. Twenty-five companies took part, half of which are food industry companies. The user group met regularly, usually at one of the companies’ premises, with approximately 20 to 25 people present. The meetings provided the necessary inspiration, interaction and exchange of experiences and ideas. Various events and workshops were organised during the project.

Demonstrator-driven approach 

Various demonstrators were constructed to research and expand the automation options in the food industry. The proof-of-concept requested by one of the companies, Vandemoortele, was implemented in production. A second demonstrator combined the advantages of an industrial robot and a cobot. Palletisation using cobots and another potential application, the handling of meat products, were also researched. 

The ColRobFood closing event took place online on 24 November.