Unlike a traditional automation line where there is a hierarchy in place—with the computer in control of the whole line, passing orders to regional command units, which then pass precise orders to the robots—this system breaks that hierarchy completely. Every robot has its own separate AI, with no hierarchical links to the others.
The next big step in automation
SCIENCE DAILY: Automation Scientists Fredrik Danielsson and Bo Svensson (University West, Sweden) performed tests on an automated production line which contained three robots, two metal cutting machines, a transportation system, a material handling system and a measuring station.
THE OLD PROCESS: The system is hierarchical: the master control system gives orders about what should be done. Only when the control system is told that the order has been completed, does the next order get placed.
“A single error somewhere makes everything stop. For example, if a piece of sheet metal is damaged an operator has so take it out and then reset and restart everything,” says Svensson.
Reminiscent of mainframes giving way to PCs
THE NEW PROCESS: In the new Danielsson-Svensson model, all robots and machines work independently. Each robot, conveyor and machine is equipped with an agent, a small intelligent program that does not require signals from a master control system to act.
“These agents know what neighbors they should communicate with and how to make small local decisions,” says Danielsson.
An agent is triggered by what is happening next to it. The start signal for a machine may be that someone puts a piece of sheet metal into it. Then it knows that it must drill.
Things do not have to happen in a certain order. If a piece of sheet metal is lost, the system continues to work with other sheets. The operator can also insert a new part in the middle of the flow without disturbing the system.
Traditional system vs. robot agents
A traditional automation system may take up to a year to create and even then it is very difficult, time consuming and expensive to adapt it to changing demands.
With the aim of making production lines more adaptable to change, Svensson and his colleague designed a non-hierarchical system. The software that they have developed, known as P-SOP, creates an individual ‘agent’ for each robot involved in the production process, thus removing the need for a master control system. This model allows each robotic element to operate independently from its counterparts.
In the system is built of agents, however, you can easily insert and remove both equipment and operators.
And it can produce an array of product variants, as it is easily reprogrammed. Agents are automatically generated in minutes by the software, P-SOP, developed by Danielsson and Svensson.
The operator gives P-SOP instructions, in the form of a PowerPoint sketch, of how the system should work. “Then he presses a button and P-SOP spits out a bunch of small agents for different machines.
I think this may be the next big step in automation,” says Danielsson.