Blank feeding on packaging machines is a repetitive task, currently carried out by humans, making it quite inefficient and prone to error. TIMAIRIS is a joint effort of Universidade de Aveiro (Portugal) and IMA (Italy) to improve the blank feeding process by developing a robotised system for flexible, collaborative blank loading on industrial shop floors. A multimodal interface will be used to enable communication adapted to the different environments/users characteristics. The robot, or robots, will operate in the same environment as the human operators, keeping safety as a key issue. Even in modern automatic packaging machines, the final-product boxes are still obtained through the manual feeding of flat or pre-glued blanks. However, shifting from manual feeding to a robotised feeding system implies several advantages: it frees the operator from keeping this repetitive rhythm allowing him/her to tackle more challenging tasks; it ensures an overall improved machine energy efficiency; and it leads to a more sustainable packaging process. However, IMA and similar companies in this field have not used autonomous robots in their systems before, mainly in view of the complexity of the environment, the compliant requirements of robotic solutions, and also because of the technology shift that this introduces.
The proposal objective is to develop a robotised system for flexible, collaborative blank loading on packaging machines on industrial shop floors.
The system will enable autonomous operation of the blank feeding process on several packaging machines with several types of blanks. The interaction with humans will be considered both because the blank’s transportation is performed in a space shared with human operators, and also to enable direct interaction between humans and the robotised platform in order to increase the task efficiency, along with its customization. For this purpose, a multimodal interface will be demonstrated in an industrial environment enabling human-robot communication to be adapted to different users and environment characteristics and also introducing forms of redundancy that may turn communication safer. In order to complete its tasks the robot will have to plan (and replan) its operations, always taking into account the safety of the operators and other humans that share the environment. The proposed system will solve numerous problems (navigation, interaction, agent architecture, compliant control, etc) that are common to several different industries and, thus, is expected to lead to the development of other new applications for related markets. Our approach meets the requirements of a modern industry by rationalising the exploitation of raw materials, energy, and repetitive human labour. The end user sees the possible outcome of the project as a key point towards more efficient and human friendly solutions in its area of expertise and experience and is committed to move on into mass production of such solutions in a short period, since it will also have a significant impact in terms of economic investment turnover.