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What are
autonomous
mobile robots,
and how can
they transform
manufacturing?

Author: Poornima Apte

Industry 4.0 is squarely underway in manufacturing. In fact, the global market is expected to reach $219.8 billion by 2026, and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are becoming key workhorses in this transformation.

The deep shifts in manufacturing

Fueled by data, advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are driving agility and reducing costs in manufacturing.

The old models of production lines devoted to endlessly pushing out only one kind of widget are making room for manufacturing-as-a-service (MaaS) where factories can be retooled to accommodate a variety of custom products. Manufacturers can make the most of equipment that would otherwise lie fallow, and more companies can use internal resources instead of having to purchase external ones. To accommodate such agile models of manufacturing, companies need infrastructure they can retool and reconfigure on a dime.

These manufacturing shifts are taking place while the industry faces a shortage of talented workers. According to a Gartner® survey, “57% of manufacturing leaders say that their organization lacks skilled workers to support digitization plans. More than half of industry leaders in a Gartner 2021 survey said they lacked the skilled talent to execute smart manufacturing.”1

Autonomous mobile robots fit right into this landscape.

Uses of autonomous mobile robots in manufacturing

An AMR is a robot that uses software and AI to move through its environment independently, without any external supervision. The environment need not be modified (e.g., no laying of dedicated tracks) for its deployment. In most cases, the AMR is a boxy trolley-like unit that moves around conducting various tasks.

What are autonomous robots used for? The manufacturing floor sees various use cases for AMRs:

  • As fetch-and-carry workhorses for inventory and parts: Workers need not waste time traveling large distances simply to transport parts needed for manufacturing. AMRs can do the job just as effectively and quickly, without compromising worker safety.
  • As substitute conveyors: Parts have to be moved from one part of the production floor to another. AMRs can act as small conveyor belts, facilitating such movement easily and without added supply chain infrastructure.
  • A platform for other robots: Repetitive jobs such as welding and spray painting, especially in hazardous areas, can be assigned to AMR ensembles. A robotic manufacturing arm placed on an AMR can be wheeled around to perform collaborative tasks on the production line.
  • Inspection of hard-to-reach parts: Manufacturers can mount inspection kits as payloads on AMRs so that they can record and document equipment in hazardous or hard-to-reach places.

The communication infrastructure AMRs need

AMRs work by receiving and processing a substantial amount of data—such as location on the shop floor or obstacle negotiation—which helps path planning. To tell the AMR what to do next, it needs low-latency communication at the edge.

Not all manufacturers have the dedicated IT infrastructure to make this work. They can instead choose to deploy mobile edge computing (MEC) on private networks, which can create a secure and dedicated computing platform. This platform can deliver seamless connectivity, compute and storage without the need for extensive IT infrastructure.

Autonomous mobile robots could be key to transitioning the industry to smart manufacturing. Manufacturers want to produce more with less, and AMRs can help  them to accomplish that goal.

Discover how communication at the edge can help your organization keep pace with Industry 4.0.

1Gartner, Gartner Survey Shows 57% of Manufacturing Leaders Feel Their Organization Lacks Skilled Workers to Support Smart Manufacturing Digitization Plans, May, 2021. GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission. All rights reserved.

FAQs

What is an autonomous mobile robot? +
  • An autonomous mobile robot is one that moves around its environment without leaning on an external driver to guide it.

What are autonomous robots used for in manufacturing? +
  • Autonomous mobile robots help manufacturers in several ways, such as serving as platforms for robot arms, carrying inventory around the production floor and more.

What communication infrastructure do autonomous mobile robots need? +
  • Autonomous mobile robots need mobile edge computing, which delivers the low-latency operations that drive robot vision, movement and overall operations.