Digitalization is on the rise in factories, and manual handling is no exception. Increasingly customized products go hand-in-hand with increasingly complex processes, and the way workers deal with goods needs to adapt. Intelligent handling devices play an important role in making this growing complexity manageable, according to the engineers at J. Schmalz GmbH, Glatten, Germany. “Smart” devices and operators interact with one another to make the actual handling process much easier for the user and permit a range of additional tasks.
The automotive industry is leading the way: no two cars are alike. Each one is customized in terms of color, equipment and drive configuration. Challenges such as the ever-growing number of different variants or ever-shorter life cycles place greater demands on all processes along the value chain — including handling.
Constantly changing workpieces, weights, and pick-up and deposit stations further increase the requirements placed on operators and handling devices. The handling process must be adapted to the configuration of the workpiece in a matter of minutes if not seconds. At the same time, there are many applications for which the focus lies in other areas – powerful dynamics, for example. The fact is, companies are being forced to adjust to an extremely wide variety of handling scenarios, said Schmalz officials. And the individual application determines how digital or smart the corresponding handling technology needs to be.
“With our lifting devices and crane systems, we offer the perfect solution for all possible scenarios,” said Michael Schlaich, Head of Business Development Process Handling Systems. The company offers many products that are used when lighter loads need to be handled at high cycle frequencies. Intelligent functions are becoming increasingly prevalent in these kinds of devices: they can record real-time data from the handling process and output information that can be used to optimize workflows and servicing. Displays can offer information on pneumatic filter status and operating hours that can determine when preventive maintenance is recommended, while the information as to whether or not a workpiece is securely gripped directly helps the user during the vacuum handling process. These smart devices also collect and store data on the number of workpieces moved for statistics and further evaluation – ideally directly on the operator’s smartphone.
Rethinking manual handling
The production processes of the future are increasingly based on new systems, structures, and procedures. That is why a completely new class of devices is required in order to tap into the full potential of Industry 4.0 in terms of handling technology. One such example is the SRBC collaborative rope balancer.
With the SRBC, Schmalz has developed an entirely new class of lifting devices that was designed from the ground up for use in a digital manufacturing environment, said Schlaich. In this context, “collaborative” means much more than simply adding intelligent functions to an existing class of devices. To a certain extent, the innovative electrical rope balancer anticipates what the user is thinking. Moreover, it reduces manual labor and also actively prevents errors, thereby increasing the safety of handling processes. “The system knows exactly what it has to do in different situations,” he explained.
The new rope balancer is said to be ideal for any application in which workpieces weighing up to 80 kg need to be dynamically commissioned or precisely positioned. Mechanical, electrical, pneumatic, and vacuum load-suspension devices, such as grippers for handling starter batteries, are all available for various handling processes. The device reacts to the operator’s movements: three motors – one in the pivot bearing, one for the trolley, and one for lifting – help the user to move and brake loads with almost no effort, making it exceptionally ergonomic. The operator can lift, lower, swivel, and move the load without even pressing a button. The SRBC detects and supports the desired direction of movement based on how the operator holds the guide. Moreover, it complies with specified swivel limits: working areas can be defined for every gripper, ruling out damage caused when the jib extends too far. Thanks to RFID-based gripper detection, the rope balancer knows which type of gripper is connected at all times.
Intelligent system functions
Further, the SRBC rope balancer automatically reads out important process parameters, such as the number of hours it has been in operation or the maximum permitted load. A comprehensive software package ensures that the operator can fully concentrate on the task at hand and that the system works intuitively. Software checks whether objects can be lifted or set down, detects spatial limits, and adapts the dynamics of the longitudinal motion to the weight of the workpiece. Depending on the application, it can also offer additional safety functions. For instance, operators can only pick up loads with the vacuum gripper when a specific vacuum level has been reached. The device makes it impossible for a load to fall.
The user can adjust the system limits, choose a different deposit location, or select a different type of handling directly on the handle. “This means, for example, that the user can carefully and precisely position a fragile glass sheet, and then, immediately afterwards, quickly lift a component frame at its place of installation,” said Schlaich. All of the properties of the handling system can be adapted on the basis of the objects being handled, with the goal of ensuring simple and, above all, safe handling for the operator as well as for the workpiece.
Schmalz has designed the new handling system to meet the growing requirements of digitalization: equipped with a variety of sensors, the system collects status and performance data that, when integrated into a digital process landscape, will be made available via IO-Link and EtherCAT. This allows for functions such as condition monitoring and predictive maintenance. The system alerts the user to possible errors directly on the display that is integrated into the handle bar. The partially automated handling system not only serves to make the workplace more ergonomic, but also increases safety along the entire process chain. “With all of these functions, we are exploring completely new opportunities for optimization and integration of handling processes in the digital manufacturing environment,” said Schlaich.