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In the Factory of the Future, Components Transport Automatically to a Proper Place in the Assembly Line

“It was excellent to have Reetu joining our team. At times Reetu is a bit lost with directions, but otherwise a great colleague. In curves Reetu could speed up a bit.” What’s going on? Who is this mysterious Reetu (a Finnish name, corresponds roughly to Fred in English), new and liked co-worker? Actually, Reetu is not a co-worker at all, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. To be exact, Reetu is a MiR 100 mobile robot GE has acquired to streamline the work in its assembly factory in Vallila, Helsinki.

It is revealing, however, that the people working in the Vallila factory call the robot as their colleague and also gave it a name. Reetu represents certain task-specific intelligence and is therefore attributed these “anthropomorphic” traits. Anthropomorphism means that animals or inanimate objects such as robots are described with human-like features.

The appearance of Reetu is not human-like at all. Instead, it is a carriage rolling on wheels. A carriage which knows how to navigate in a factory by itself when it transports components from one place to another. This is enabled by a high resolution laser scan model of the factory floor with stationary and mobile structures separated. This model has then been input to Reetu, which always chooses its route according to it.

Why did GE decide to invest in Reetu? Why not have people carrying the components wherever they are needed? The answer is simple: it makes sense to automate routine tasks and physically demanding jobs whenever possible. In this way the capacity of professionals can be directed to value-adding tasks which robots are incapable of carrying out. GE has taken this seriously and invested in the automation of its Vallila factory for more than four years.

VTT has been involved in the project since day one. As it happened at the time, VTT had the same kind of MiR 100 robot in research use. This made it convenient to start co-operation. VTT’s mission is to always support Finnish industry, especially in areas that require looking into the future and figuring out how to add value via applying new technological innovations.

In the past, a human loaded the component cart and pushed it to the right place in the assembly line. After that, the human loaded the cart and told it where to go. The next step is to have the components enter the cart automatically from a conveyor belt and tell it where to go. This phase will be implemented by the Reboot IoT Factory project.

In the future, it might be possible to install a robot arm in the cart for picking up component boxes from different places in the factory. Another future vision is the capability for the robot to operate elevators. This is of particular interest to GE’s Vallila factory, which is located in a building with several floors. Maybe Reetu jr will in some day know how to navigate from one floor to another.

Heli Huhtala, GE Healthcare
Markku Hentula, VTT

Santtu Toivonen

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