Lights out, power on: reliable power in reduced-workforce manufacturing facilities

Author : Robert Brown | Marketing Executive | Ultralife

01 November 2021

Automation & lights-out manufacturing
Automation & lights-out manufacturing

The COVID-19 pandemic has put increasing pressure on industry to move towards reduced physical workforces & ever-increasing automation. While not a new phenomenon, so-called ‘lights-out manufacturing’ has taken on new importance in a landscape where the overcrowding of people could present a health & safety hazard. However, this comes with its own challenges, not least ensuring the proper maintenance of industrial robots.

This article was originally featured in the November 2021 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Here, Robert Brown from battery manufacturer, Ultralife discusses the importance of reliable power sources in reduced workforce industrial facilities...

The idea behind lights-out manufacturing is nothing new. First proposed in the 1950s, and trialled in the 1980s, the dream of a factory working entirely with a robotic, rather than human workforce is one that many manufacturers are increasingly realising. However, any endeavour to build a factory that works on these principles runs into the issue of maintenance.

Although lights-out manufacturers don’t have to worry about employees being off sick, they do have to be mindful of the need for robot repair or replacement. To reduce this need, ensure the high quality and performance of all components, right down to the battery. Select the wrong battery and it could overheat, short-circuit, overcharge or run out of power. Without a human workforce on site to monitor this, the need for built-in safety features becomes critical. Ultralife’s in-house team of electronic engineers integrate electronic protection circuitry and communication protocols that allow robots, smart chargers and batteries to work together in a safe and controlled manner. Furthermore, all batteries are manufactured to ISO 9001 quality standards.

As many fully automated factories operate without heating or air conditioning equipment, the operating temperature range of the battery may also be a key consideration in selection, in addition to more general requirements like capacity, rate capability and cycle life.

Even with robots running on high-quality batteries, there will still be a need for humans to occasionally visit the factory to undertake routine maintenance or repairs of the robots – although there can often be days or months between these visits. Therefore, there needs to be an accurate, readily available way for maintenance workers to access information about the service history of each robot.

One way of achieving this could be using a handheld scanner that reads a barcode or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag attached to each robot or their workstations. As the scanners may be stored in the empty factory for long periods between uses, they need to have a battery with a long cycle life. Another consideration is the size of the scanners, which is why Accutronics (an Ultralife company) manufacture Lithium-ion batteries that are half the size of a standard credit card.

An alternative method that maintenance workers could use to diagnose a robot’s health is via a cart with a battery-powered computer, which has a compartment for storing any necessary tools for completing repair work.

In a post-COVID world, where lights-out manufacturing is set to become more commonplace, reliable and long-lasting batteries are essential to keep robots running for days or months without supervision. Devices that maintenance workers need to complete repair work also need to be powered up and ready for use after long periods of dormancy.

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