Helping robots to think for themselves

Production line
We wanted to instil ‘intelligence’ at each stage of the process. As they have no master, the robots know what to do with the product itself. Once it has performed the task for which it was designed, the robot can pass the component on.
Dr Bo Svensson
New research, conducted by roboticists from University West, could pave the way for greater adaptability within production lines. By endowing automatons with greater autonomy, the Sweden-based team has developed an approach that could make automated manufacturing processes much more flexible than they are at present.

Today’s automated production lines are extremely efficient, as long as their inputs remain consistent. However, because such systems are hierarchical, when a problem arises – such as a damaged component being fed into the process – the problematic element must be removed and the production line reset, before work can continue. The new approach, developed by automation scientists Drs Bo Svensson and Fredrik Danielsson, circumvents this obstacle by allowing each robotic actor in the production line its own agency.

In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, Dr Svensson explained how removing the hierarchical structure traditionally employed within production lines can facilitate greater flexibility.

"At present, most production lines have a hierarchical structure," he began. "Robots responsible for different tasks act as slaves to the master control system. Before these systems become operational, programmers must account for the equipment and components that will be available. Only then can a programme be designed to deliver optimal production. This programme will run extremely effectively as long as everything remains as it should be. However, a small problem can lead to a complete halt in production."

With the aim of making production lines more adaptable to change, Dr 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.

"We wanted to instil ‘intelligence’ at each stage of the process," Dr Svensson explained. "As they have no master, the robots know what to do with the product itself. Once it has performed the task for which it was designed, the robot can pass the component on. This structure makes the entire process more flexible. As long as there is an incoming component, production will continue."

Essentially, the actions of each agent are triggered by what is happening next to it. The cue for a robot to operate might simply be the presence of the required component. Events do not have to take place in any particular order. Thus, if a damaged sheet of metal has to be removed from a production line, work does not have to stop. Similarly, operators can introduce new components without disturbing activity.

Whilst similar ideas have been mooted in the past, the University West team is the first to implement such an approach in practice. The scientists have tested their programme on an automated production line containing three robots, two metal-cutting machines, a transportation system, a material-handling system and a measuring station.

"We have demonstrated that our non-hierarchical structure works using real robots and real machines," concluded Dr Svensson. "Of course, we are still at an early stage, so P-SOP has not yet been used on a commercial production line. From a research perspective, however, the technology is good to go. All that is now needed is a company willing to invest in order to bring this product to market."

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