Rise of friendly automated robots at Continental

Global Tier I automotive component maker Continental has entered the business of industrial materials management with its autonomous mobile robots like the AMR IL 1200.

By Chandan B Mallik calendar 26 Jul 2023 Views icon4824 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
Rise of friendly automated robots at Continental

It’s a familiar sight at manufacturing or industrial facilities where a lot of heavy stuff is carted around with the help of fork lift trucks. Fork lift trucks zooming in and out handling various jobs is not uncommon in businesses dependent on human resources, while in some semi-automated factories like Volkswagen’s Transparent Factory in Dresden, Germany, automated robots can be seen carrying pallets following specific routes during assembly work.

As sophisticated systems in production processes gain momentum, so does the workload of material management and transportation, especially those set-ups practising just-in-time delivery systems. However, the role and days of the forklifts usage could be numbered in some countries as post Covid-19, many industrial set-ups around the globe are finding it very difficult to find skilled workers to operate these machines and hence there’s a favourable mindset towards automation to take over labour intensive or jobs of a repetitive nature and ensure uninterrupted operational efficiency.

As an emerging business, several specialist entities are beginning to develop and market befitting hardware and software autonomous solutions for the industry. One such solution is being offered by Germany-based Continental and it’s called the AMR IL 1200. AMR stands for Autonomous Mobile Robot.

The Autonomous Mobile Robot or AMR project was conceived in 2020 in Germany and most of its research, development and prototyping was done at the partly repurposed Continental Rheinböllen factory, located around 94 km from Frankfurt am Main. In its earlier avatar, this site was an old foundry and is said to be a few centuries old. Currently, this Continental facility uses around 30,000 sq-ft units of covered space and for over 60 years, it has been devoted to the production of various types of automotive brake callipers with the help of 600 engineers on site. The plant has a capacity of producing six million callipers per annum. In the long term, the production numbers of callipers will not increase and there’s a good reason for this.

As part of the renewed business plan, Continental is looking at future technologies, especially in the areas of automation as a technology supplier and as an OEM specialist. The company strongly believes that automation at all levels is expected to play a big role in manufacturing industries, due to a growing need for efficient solutions in small and mid-sized manufacturing companies.

As a result of these challenges and forward looking diversification policies, around 5,000 sq-ft of redundant space in the Continental’s Rheinböllen factory premises has been repurposed for future technologies — in this case, for the Autonomous Mobile Robot project. This space is being used for R&D, prototyping and series production of AMRs. The best part is that Greenfield norms are not required for making AMRs and hence they can be made at the existing facilities, says Continental.

The self-propelled electric AMR IL 1200 looks like a flat rectangular platform and it stands at 1,455 mm in length, 630 mm in width and 225 mm in height.

Due to the load density, the AMR is small and compact and its body is constructed of thick gauge sheet metal and is powder coated for durability. The autonomous platform can ferry a pallet measuring 1.2m x 1.2m weighing up to 1.2-tonnes with ease at working speeds of 2m/sec. It’s driven by two 48-volt motors and uses a sensor driven camera in the front and rear. There are sensors on the sides also. All systems are connected to a superfast central processing unit that’s embedded in the sturdy metal enclosure.

Continental says the design of the AMR IL 1200 is modular to ensure easy serviceability. As of now, the pioneering models are in use at Continental’s manufacturing units in China and Slovakia. Feedback received has helped in improvements to its lifting mechanism design, accessibility of controls and the upgraded versions are being readied for market introduction shortly. In terms of operational flexibility, Continental can offer the AMR IL 1200 with different top modules and customers can choose between cart/rack and lifting unit use cases. Year one production for AMR IL 1200 is planned for 100 units and can be ramped up as the market matures.

Technical partners for applications
The Top Roller solution version for the Continental AMR IL 1200 has been developed by Denmark-based technical partner ROEQ and will be available in three models that come with add-ons like side bars and a long cargo kit that can transport a wide range of products between conveyors. One of the variants has an added function of collection and delivery to static conveyors of different heights.

The business model

  • The AMR IL 1200 was developed in-house two years ago and put on trials at Continental's own manufacturing units in China and Slovakia.
  • The updated version is being offered for commercial sales.
  • The software operating the AMR IL 1200 was developed in-house with technical support from Continental’s India, Singapore and Frankfurt units.
  • Through mapping, more than one unit can be  put into service.

The user interface makes it easy to add and customise routes while maps and dashboards help the managers track the AMR fleet 24/7 (if more than one is being used), ts shipping runs and battery charging operations in real time.

Horticultural applications
To help extend the AMR’s extended job profile, horticulture applications is one area that has caught the interest of Continental where it thinks there’s good business potential. To explore further, Continental has partnered with Octiva, a Dutch-Belgian technology specialist. The collaboration agreement between the two partners will help develop autonomous mobile robotic solutions for horticulture applications. As a result, apart from industrial applications in materials management, the second product line will focus on agricultural solutions.

Octiva was formed from the merger of Priva’s robotic solutions and Octinion’s agricultural robotics and focuses on integrated horticulture robotics solutions. On its part, Octiva will focus on developing market-specific applications that allow automation of often tedious and repetitive work in greenhouses like trimming jobs, cutting leaves or monitoring the crops for which it is hard to find enough workers due to labour shortage.

AMR IL 1200 technicals
Besides cars, smart robot vacuum machines are the best examples of autonomous utility applications of machines using Lidar technology. In terms of navigation features, these intelligent machines could be using TrueMapping 2.0 software that is capable of combining Lidar and a laser sensor to calculate distance and 360° scanning that is needed to help it navigate obstacles efficiently. As a result, these bots are quite methodical when moving around furniture and walls. That’s not all — it can cope with complex environment adaptability, which means it can work 24/7 by navigating not just in daylight but also in strong light and in complete darkness.

However, for the Continental AMR IL 1200, the idea is similar but the mapping requirements are far more specific for its job description as opposed to a random vacuum cleaner working at home. For this application, Continental uses Fleet Master Control software that forms the core of the AMR IL 1200’s workings.

“We developed a reliable and scalable fleet management software in collaboration with Continental, which increases the flexibility and performance of our customers' AMR fleets. Additionally, we offer an Ultra-Wideband (UWB) system for connecting relevant things of the material flow such as AMRs. Our holistic fleet management software combines this information in real time to optimise supply chains, material flow and industrial automation even more,” says Dr Alexander Hüttenbrink, Managing Director at Kinexon.

One-stop-shop services
Customers buying the AMR IL 1200 don’t have to worry about the mapping of the work areas or the software that runs it. Continental’s service team will work with the client and create the machine’s working paths or maps as part of the contractual obligations.

This feature was first published in Autocar Professional's July 15, 2023 issue.

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