HIROTEC Experiments with Next Generation Robots

Historically, companies looking at a technology solution would put together a detailed business plan, and then only implement the technology if the forecasted financial returns exceeded their return on investment (ROI) target. But more companies are experimenting with next generation robots and other digital technologies, regardless of whether the ROI is there or not. HIROTEC AMERICA, part of the HIROTEC Group, is one such company.

The HIROTEC Group is a Tier 1 supplier of door panels, exhaust systems, and manufacturing equipment, such as stamping dies, assembly systems, and hemming equipment to automotive manufacturers around the globe. Headquartered in Hiroshima, Japan, the company generated over $1.6 billion in sales in 2017.

Last year HIROTEC AMERICA developed a rather novel solution that combined an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) with a machine arm. The robotic solution involved a self-driving robot from OTTO Motors and an integrated dual-arm piece-picking robot from Motoman.

The experiment involved automating the company’s spare parts production at a plant near Detroit in the U.S. The OTTO 1500 self-driving vehicle was used for autonomous material movement, while the Motoman dual-arm manipulator integrated on top of the OTTO 1500 was used to pick up and dip parts in black oxide for corrosion protection.

The project was driven by two key factors. “The main reason the company undertook this project was the difficulty in hiring and retaining factory workers,” Jim Toeniskoetter, the President of HIROTEC AMERICA stated. “This holds true for Japan and the U.S., and it is even starting to be true in Mexico.”

But secondly, “being in the tooling business, we need to lead on the digital footprint,” Mr. Toeniskoetter explained. For HIROTEC AMERICA, a core part of going digital is implementing flexible solutions.

The mobile robot was certainly flexible. OTTO has dynamic path routing to avoid obstacles. “The layout of our plants changes constantly. We often build new lines. There is constant variation in what we make and where we make it.”

So, did the experiment work? No. This system is no longer in use. There was not enough volume to justify this project on an ongoing basis.

But did the project fail? Certainly not! Mr. Toeniskoetter explained, “We did not expect the ROI to be there. That was never the purpose.”

Gary Krus, the Vice President of Business Development at HIROTEC AMERICA elaborated on this idea.  “The robot business has been stable. But things are changing quickly.” Collaborative robots that are designed to work safely with humans “are prohibitively expensive. But they are in their infancy.”

Vision systems, autonomous navigation, falling sensor and battery pack prices, and other advances, are making mobile picking robots a technology that needs to be closely monitored. Further, many robots are produced in small batches. But as the technology improves and more companies buy robots, robotic producers will have the volumes needed to rapidly drive down pricing.

HIROTEC AMERICA did learn useful lessons. “We learned how to deal with safety issues for a solution that combines a robotic arm with an autonomous mobile robot,” Mr. Krus explained.  “AMR safety systems are very well developed.” Automatic guided vehicles, a similar but less flexible technology, have been used for decades.

But putting a robotic arm on top of an AMR added new complexities related to safety.  AMRs have LIDAR to detect and avoid obstacles, including people. But when the mobile robot with the arm on top gets to the work center where work will be done, that range needs to increase. “We learned how to change the LIDAR range and customize it at the work station to create a safe zone.” Additional, AMRs normally have an e-stop button on top so that in an emergency they can be brought to a stop. “But it is hard to get to an e-stop on a cart if there is an arm on top. We worked on developing redundant e-stop stations that ran over wireless. These localized e-stop buttons only became active when the robot was in that zone.”

Detroit is not the only site where the HIROTEC Group has developed processes utilizing mobile robots. In a plant outside of Tokyo they have a similar solution that has become part of daily operations. In this case, the mobile robots come from Nidec Corporation, but the arms are still sourced from Motoman. Doing dual path development in the U.S. and Japan allowed this higher volume site to benefit from the lessons learned in the U.S. and achieve a quicker ROI.

Next Generation Robots

The goal for the solution in Japan is to eventually have it in production twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week at a plant making exhaust systems. The robots drive to a bin storing raw materials located near the assembly line, reach into the bin, pick the necessary number of items needed, and deliver those parts to the assembly line. At the assembly line, humans still load the parts into racks in the proper sequence to support assembly. Currently, the solution is picking and sequencing parts for nine different catalytic converters. These low value-add work steps were previously done by people.

The HIROTEC Group has no intentions to stop experimenting with these technologies. The company is in the late stages of putting together a proposal for a similar solution in their Mexican operations. In this case, the factory is producing automotive stamped body parts and exhaust systems, however the process is similar. “We hope the project will have ROI, but in either case we will put it in.”

Mr. Toeniskoetter and Krus speculated on a future where currently stationary robots will be on mobile platforms that allow them to work for several hours in one location, and then pick themselves up and move to another location on the line where they are needed. Or a situation where products on the line are gradually assembled as they move from station to station on robots rather than on inflexible, bolted down conveyors.

A digitization mindset includes a fast fail methodology, as well as the realization that a business case frequently won’t be able to capture all the benefits associated with digitization. Mr. Toeniskoetter points out that “if you have to have a ROI on paper, up front, you may never start. If a technology will drive an industry into the future, you need to have faith on the ROI, and learn the ROI over time.”

ARC has recently completed a global market study of the AMR market. This interview was conducted as part of that process.