Narrow paths, loads with different widths, a large number of interfaces with systems from different manufacturers - the requirements for a driverless transport system (AGV) at Rittal's newest plant in Haiger are high when the system provider starts looking for a competent partner in 2017. Rittal found what it was looking for with the Hamburg-based AGV expert ek robotics. Since 1963, the family-owned company has been developing, manufacturing and marketing a wide range of transport solutions for efficient and automated intralogistics. Rittal had already gained experience with an AGV at its plant in Italy in Vallegio sul Mincio near Verona, where automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been in operation for many years. "However, the degree of complexity, the driving course design and also the overall integration of the AGV into the system landscape at the Haiger plant, are not comparable with the conditions in Italy," says Philipp Grahn, project manager at Rittal, summarizing the challenge. "In the end, the overall package was so convincing that we decided in favor of ek robotics."
Demanding environmental conditions
In addition to its proven robotics solutions, the ek robotics portfolio also includes extensive other services, such as the simulation of material flows. The simulation can be used to create a detailed 3D view of a newly planned transport system, including the optimal number of vehicles. "Especially for intralogistics projects as complex as those at Rittal, it is essential to collect as much data as possible in advance in order to map all interrelationships exactly," explains Ronald Kretschmer, CSO (Chief Sales Officer) at ek robotics. In this way, it is possible to determine any system limits, bottlenecks, blockages and the appropriate alternative solutions even before the actual implementation. Philipp Grahn reports: "The simulation helped us to estimate the expected hurdles as accurately as possible. On this basis, for example, we expanded the transport capacity in our assembly from the original 11 to 13 transport robots. This decision has proven to be correct in practice."
Start in stages, gradual expansion
When the automated guided vehicle system goes into operation at the new plant in 2018, it does so in stages. Gradually, the vehicles will be put into operation, and the driving course will be expanded station by station. The challenge for Rittal here is to build up the respective communication partners of the vehicles - i.e. plants and systems for production, assembly and logistics - in parallel with the introduction of the AGV. In this way, the performance of the transport system is gradually increased to full capacity as the stability of the interfaces to production increases. The AGV at Rittal will initially go into operation with a total of 16 customized transport robots from the CUSTOM MOVE series. The vehicles are designed for a maximum load of 1,200 kg and are equipped with a lifting table and lifting beam. In 2021, Rittal will add another three FTFs of the same design to the fleet. In addition, the internationally active system provider will order three new CUSTOM MOVE with roller conveyors for the automated heavy transport of stacks of sheet metal, with a load weight of up to 5,500 kg. In practice, the CUSTOM MOVE have quickly proven their versatility and performance at Rittal.
In customer support, too, ek robotics has consistently proven to be a reliable team player. Even during the planning phase, Rittal had a permanent contact person at its disposal who was intensively involved in all matters. When the system was running up, a support team was on site to eliminate possible sources of interference and to optimize the processes already during the start-up. After commissioning, Rittal remains in close contact with the experts from ek robotics, on the one hand as part of the comprehensive service agreement, and on the other hand via project management with a view to the ongoing optimization of the automated guided vehicle system. There are regular appointments with both departments to prioritize and work on the current topics concerning the AGV. "We are always finding optimization approaches that we drive forward together with ek robotics in order to make the system even more efficient in terms of order processing," explains Philipp Grahn.
The optimization of the system is still not completely finished, but that is in the nature of things. "Particularly at the interfaces between the AGV and our production lines, approaches to improvement are continuously emerging, which we can use to optimize the entire material flow." And, "The fact that the AGV can be found throughout the plant here, interacting with many other systems and, of course, with the employees, constantly presents us with new challenges. In comparison, a closed production line is much less susceptible to external influences," Philipp Grahn summarizes.
Comprehensive data acquisition essential - right from the start
Just as a custom-fit transport solution is tailored to the conditions in a production facility, various processes at Rittal have also adapted to the special features of the now automated intralogistics. Comparatively trivial processes, such as loading a stack of materials, must be precisely defined. It makes a decisive difference whether a load is placed on a pallet manually by hand or whether a transport robot uses sensors to check the exact contour of the load in order to bring it to its destination without interference. In addition, the use of transport robots reduces product damage to a minimum compared to manual forklift transport. This is of considerable benefit to the economy as well as the safety of a site. Likewise, the processes of individual production areas served by the same AGV must harmonize. The interdependencies of all the individual systems should not be underestimated. If delays occur in the paint shop, for example, they will have an impact on the subsequent stations. "The workflows and processes must be standardized to a high degree," says Philipp Grahn. Because: "Highly automated systems react very sensitively to changes, which can be measured immediately. In connection with this, it is also important to keep the qualification level of the employees high, to involve them in the integration of the transport system right from the start and to sensitize them to this."
One keyword in this context is data transparency: Particularly during the ramp-up of the automated guided vehicle system, it became apparent at Rittal how important it is to establish and maintain the most comprehensive possible collection of key figures and data. Otherwise, there is a risk that potential sources of interference will remain undetected for too long because they are difficult or impossible to detect with the naked eye. At Rittal, the recorded database is now so large and resilient that the current status of the automation processes can be accurately mapped.
Overcoming challenges together
Rittal is extremely satisfied with the performance of the AGV from ek robotics and sees the high performance requirements for the plant in Haiger fulfilled. "We find that the AGVs are able to perform the material flow for the entire production quickly and reliably, with a high base load including peaks that occur," Philipp Grahn sums up. "They are therefore an important element in ensuring the high output of our plant. However, it is also clear that a project of this complexity is not completed with the purchase. It remains an ongoing process, not least with regard to maintenance and service." With ek robotics, Rittal will continue to have a powerful partner with the highest level of expertise at its side to accompany this process. Any malfunctions that occur can be quickly described and solved via the hotline, the readiness to respond to maintenance measures on site is high, and on-time maintenance is ensured. Regular meetings ensure ongoing support for the AGV, with possible adjustments and modifications also being discussed. In this way, the two partners deepen their cooperation and benefit and learn equally from the shared knowledge.
Read the latest case report about impressive AGV installations for our global customers
Subscribe to our YouTube channel to never miss videos and exciting cases from the automation industry!