« Back To Robotics Industry Insights
Association for Advancing Automation Logo

Member Since 1974

LEARN MORE

Content Filed Under:

Industry:
N/A

Application:
N/A

Understanding the Importance of Robot Interoperability on the Facility Floor

POSTED 05/14/2024  | By: Nick Cravotta, A3 Contributing Editor

Robot interoperability is an essential technology for maximizing efficiency and safety on the facility floor. While autonomous mobile robots (AMR) bring a new level of automation to factories, warehouses, and other facilities, it is when robots work together that the highest levels of performance can be achieved. In addition, to ensure safe operations, AMRs need to be able to coexist with people, obstacles, and ultimately other robots.

This article explores robot interoperability on the facility floor by covering what interoperability is, understanding how AMRs operate in the real world, outlining some of the many benefits of interoperability, and looking at how the emerging ISO standard for AMR interoperability will affect the future of automation. 

AMRs in the Real World

It’s important to recognize that, in the real world, AMRs are probabilistic, not deterministic. There are always situations that might pose a challenge for a robot, and many times their response is to stall until the situation is resolved by a person. With the right data, however, autonomous systems can learn to detect and resolve problems on their own in the shortest possible time. And sometimes these problems can even be eliminated by working the solution back into the operational flow.


Consider an AMR in a grocery store moving ice cream cartons from the back of the store to the front. If there is a spill or something in the AMR’s way, the AMR might wait until the obstacle is cleared. In the meantime, the ice cream melts. Not only is the ice cream ruined, this situation creates a second obstacle that slows operations and needs to be addressed.

With the right processes, the management system can detect problems and enable robots to resolve issues on their own. Since many AMRs are managed in the cloud, the mechanisms to collect data are typically already in place. When combined with interoperability, all AMRs can benefit from what one AMR learns. Thus, one AMR could detect an obstacle and enable other AMR’s to proactively take an alternate route to avoid the obstacle, saving valuable time and preventing an even larger traffic jam.

Interoperability

Many robotics vendors have proprietary systems that don’t interact with equipment from other vendors. At the same time, no single vendor offers a diverse enough portfolio to support the great variety of tasks that facilities may want to automate. At some point, robots from different vendors will need to be able to, if not work together, at least collaborate to stay out of each other’s way.

At a basic level, interoperability is a mechanism for enabling communication with and between robots. What makes interoperability useful is how it enables coordination and orchestration of AMRs so they can operate in harmony with other robots, equipment, software control systems, and humans.

Efficiency

Interoperability provides numerous benefits for facilities of all types. One immediate benefit is efficiency. Efficiency of operations can be improved through coordination of AMRs to avoid traffic jams. For example, consider an automated forklift traveling down an aisle where a cleaning robot is at work. Rather than create a traffic jam, the forklift could travel down another aisle instead. Alternatively, a general cleaning robot could be assigned to work in aisles that are currently not expected to be in use for a time. Efficiency can also be improved through the ability to assign the best robot for a task, such as sending a smaller robot to handle a small load to free up a larger robot to handle tasks more appropriate to its capabilities.

Smooth Operations

“The value of interoperability is how it keeps operations running smoothly, whether it’s a production line or warehouse,” says Florian Pestoni, CEO of InOrbit. InOrbit offers a RobOps approach to interoperability and management. RobOps is a robot-agnostic combination of best practices and tools that guide robot manufacturers, operators, and customers in the design and use of robots. InOrbit builds on these principles to manage traffic, collect data, provide analytics, and offer interventions to optimize AMR operations. They also support selecting the appropriate robot for a task and allowing users to speak naturally to management tools to coordinate AMRs as well as access operational data.

InOrbit’s Pestoni describes four levels of value gained through interoperability (see Figure 1):

  • Observability – Collection of data from AMRs
  • Operations – Even though AMRs operate in controlled environments, the facility floor is still complex to navigate
  • Orchestration – Everything in the facility has to work together to enable smooth operation
  • Optimization – The highest level of efficiency, where “working together” is continuously improved 

Figure 1: RobOps illustrates the four levels of value gained for end users when interoperability is enabled across AMR assets regardless of vendor. (Source: InOrbit.)

Orchestration and Coordination

“When your robots work together,” says Aldus Von Der Burg, founder and CEO of Meili Robots, “you get more out of them.” Meili Robots provides the Meili Fleet Management System (Meili FMS). Meili FMS provides universal orchestration of robotic assets from different vendors through mission management, traffic control, and path planning. While AMRs come with their own management controller, the controller only manages that one vendor’s AMRs. This forces operators to manage numerous sets of robots independently with no way to automate coordination of their movement and activities. With a universal FMS, operators can coordinate the entire inventory of AMRs as a single fleet (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Tools that enable interoperability such as Meili Fleet Management System (FMS) make possible universal orchestration of robotic assets from different vendors. (Source: Meili Robots.)

Coordination is important for efficiency by making sure robots don’t get in each other’s way. A cleaning robot interfering with a train of tugging robots disrupts productivity with an immediately measurable impact. With interoperability, AMRs performing non-urgent or non-essential tasks can avoid and work around AMRs performing time-bound and critical tasks such as moving materials to where they are needed in a production line.


Interoperability also increases efficiency when working with humans. For example, a person on a forklift can disrupt working robots. When the location of the manual forklift can be shared with all the AMRs on the floor, the AMRs can coordinate their movement to accommodate the manual forklift and each other appropriately. 

Robots are purchased based on use cases. Many times, robots perform more than is needed. For example, when a robot with a ton capacity is used to carry a 400 pound payload, it is not being used to its highest utility. With interoperability, the best robot for a job can be assigned to it. The problem is, large and small robots often come from different vendors. To be able to swap in and out the appropriate AMR for the job, orchestration and control through interoperability is required.

Ideally, operators can manage AMRs at a high level. Rather than direct each robot, they can manage and supervise how the entire fleet of AMRs work together. In addition, they can coordinate between different types of equipment. For example, it becomes possible to automate handover of inventory from a conveyor belt to a tote and eliminate the need for manual coordination.

Coordination through interoperability becomes more and more important as the level of automation increases because as the number — and different types — of AMRs in the same facility rises, so does the amount of interference operators have to deal with. The ability to orchestrate AMRs from different vendors can save hours per week by eliminating the need to manually mitigate collisions. Tools that support interoperability make it possible to begin to track real-world orchestration benefits (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Tools that support interoperability like Meili Fleet Management System (FMS) enable operators to track real-world efficiency and orchestration benefits. (Source: Meili Robots.)

Ultimately, the benefits of interoperability need to be considered in terms of return on investment (ROI). While saving hours per week may not seem like much, interference has a ripple effect that can result in a significant impact on operations. Consider that bottlenecks in the movement of materials can result in production line slowdowns or delay the shipping of goods from a warehouse. This delay on throughput and efficiency can domino into substantial costs and delays later in the supply chain that impact a company’s ability to deliver product on time and potentially damage their reputation.

Another intangible value of integration that is growing in importance is integration with other systems within the facility. For example, when the fleet management system can receive orders from the warehouse management system (WMS) or manufacturing execution system (MES), this adds another layer of automation, efficiency, and cost savings that improve the bottom line.

Mobile Robot Interoperability: A New Standard

MassRobotics is an independent non-profit trade association working in conjunction with A3 to lead the development of a new ISO standard, Industrial Mobile Robot Interoperability and Communications (ISO/TC 299/WG 10). MassRobotics also houses 85 robotics startups in the Boston Area.  

 “The exchange of data between robots is essential for interoperability and efficiency optimization,” says Tom Ryden, executive director at MassRobotics. “Our goal is to standardize communications with and between robots regardless of vendor.”

Part of the challenge of coordinating AMRs so they can work together is that each AMR vendor builds its own facility map and understanding of the environment. These maps may use different reference points and routes. As a result, AMRs from different vendors don’t see the facility in the same way.

With this new standard, AMR maps will be able to share common reference points and so be able to coordinate operations with each other. For example, one vendor may choose aisle A for all south-bound movement while another vendor chooses aisle A for north-bound movement. Similarly, one vendor may have robots try to pass on the right while other vendors default to passing on the left. With interoperability, arbitrary decisions like these can be coordinated so every AMR works together. 

“This standard does not require AMRs to change their internal map,” says Ryden. “Rather, it enables AMRs from different vendors to communicate to enable them to coordinate with each other to improve overall facility efficiency.”

Interoperability also protects a company’s AMR investment. For example, a robotics vendor might go out of business or be bought outright by a larger company for their exclusive use. Interoperability enables a company to continue to use their existing AMRs and coordinate their operation with other AMRs through third-party control platforms. In short, interoperability helps future-proof a company’s AMR investment.

The Future of Robot Interoperability

The first stage of the standard’s development has been to focus on enabling communications. Future stages will allow AMRs to be assigned tasks. For example, an AMR’s controller may set a route that will encounter congestion. The ability to change tasks makes it possible for a facility-level controller to change the route to avoid congestion such as other AMRs or a temporary obstacle (like a spill) the AMR could not otherwise know about yet. The goal for the standard is to eventually allow facility operators to prioritize AMRs and tasks. Today, each robot believes its task is the highest priority. However, a cleaning AMR handling a spill needs to have priority over other AMRs.

“Standards will evolve as robots continue to get smarter and be able to perform more complex tasks,” says Ryden. “It’s exciting to see where AMR technology is going to take us.”

It is important to also note the ultimate role AMRs serve in factories, warehouses, and other facilities. “Automation doesn’t replace people,” says Meili Robot’s Von Der Burg. “Automation enables a safer, more productive, and healthier work environment. People shouldn’t be pushing 200 kg carts for five miles a day. Let the robots do that. And this frees up people to explore new technologies to make operations even more efficient and safer.”

Traditionally, warehousing and manufacturing operators have been slow to adopt new technologies. However, the efficiencies of automation and AMRs are significant enough that legacy technologies are no longer efficient compared to them. Von Der Burg says, “The cost of robotics systems has gone down so even mom and pop operations can afford them.” With cost and management less of a barrier through interoperability, AMRs are going to give companies willing to invest in AMR-based automation a substantial competitive edge.