12/01/2021 | Trends
Imagine the scene: a factory site in 2025. A small fleet of robots moves autonomously 24/7 throughout and around the different parts of a production area. Some are configured to take and transport samples, others carry around high-tech sensors of various kinds to monitor the status of infrastructure, production equipment and processes. Meet the Plant Service Robots, nothing new in the wider industry sense, but for chemical plants, developing quickly to adapt to the needs of environments where precision is paramount.
All of which is why they are being asked to step up and prove their worth in an open innovation challenge at the next ACHEMA to showcase not only the advantages of the sort of 24-hour, seven-days-a-week attention they can give, but the additional tasks of which they are capable. The challenge is part of an initiative backed by a consortium of some of the biggest names in the industry: those such as BASF, Bayer, Boehringer, Merck and Wacker under the auspices of NAMUR.
Teams from all over the world will be able to demonstrate just how close their technology is to the vision of 24/7 monitoring with the added value of being able to, for example, feed sensor data into a learning system and perform other activities, such as sampling or transporting, while increasing safety via the ability to detect and deal with change. Six finalists will be selected at the end of February to present their technology at ACHEMA and compete in the finals in September. “These will demonstrate a vital function,” said Dr. Carl-Helmut Coulon, group head of Smart Automation at INVITE, a research partnership between Dortmund University, HHU Düsseldorf and Bayer AG.
It’s best practice in the chemical industry that you walk around your plant several times a day looking at everything and making sure everything is all right. The sort of technology capable of doing this has been in development for some time but it’s getting more of a hot topic as we explore greater possibilities. Pilot projects like this will only accelerate production making products available.”
Contestants will be shortlisted on the basis of their on-paper proposals but the robots will be put through their paces in what has been described as a 36m² mock-up scenario in front of a live audience. Importantly, this represents an opportunity for them to be tested “in a real environment in front of an audience”, he said. “If you can show you can do it, there’s an opportunity for you to become the supplier of the future. We want to engage larger companies in sending the message that the chemical industry is ready to adopt new solutions - if you are able to come up with them.”
As an example of the depth of the challenge, the robots will begin with a series of tasks which assess their overall mobility and ability to navigate the building. The jury will mark two waypoints in the building in the 3D model in the team’s software. The PSR will then have to walk from the starting point along the waypoints and return to the start. In doing so, it may use the 3D layout.
The 3D layout contains only static elements such as stairs. “Dynamic” obstacles, like people or pallets, aren’t included. Another task involves “sensor data collection and orientation”. This will involve marking two observation tasks on the map as poses (3D pose plus 3D direction). At the first pose it should be able to detect whether or not a warning cap can be seen, for example. At the second place, a manometer with a measuring point number is to be photographed. The manometer has a given size and position.
Accumulative points are awarded, for example, if the warning cap is recognised correctly and if the manometer with the measuring point number is fully visible in the photo. The more accurate the manometer is in the centre of the photo, the more points. Other elements include convertibility and retrofitting.
In those scenarios, the image sensors will have to be replaced by a mechanism able to get a sample container filled under a sampling point. Points will be awarded for the simplicity of the changeover and whether it is fully automated and does or doesn’t require such things as screws or tools.
Other tasks have been designed to test it at even more sophisticated levels, such as its ability to take and return a liquid sample intact and safely navigate. In addition, the finalists have to present a theoretical concept to comply with ATEX when being confronted with explosive zones. “Current robots mainly ignore the fact that there are these explosive zones,” said Dr Coulon. “Technology is close to delivering those that can but we’re not quite there yet. Plant Service Robots will become valuable members of our teams. This challenge will match the demand of a whole industry with cutting edge technology.”
Editor’s note: The initiative represents a logical progression for the robotics industry which has recently been making huge inroads into the domestic market, the events industry and even corporate frontline services, thanks to autonomous and adaptable interfaces that interact, communicate, engage with customers. Evidence of their growing roles within the industry is widespread, as is confirmed by the content elsewhere on these pages. Like all of the start-up and innovation challenges featured here, this initiative further underlines the value of the ACHEMA community as a force for progress on many levels.
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