Since the celebrated opening of Mill 19 four years ago, Carnegie Mellon’s Manufacturing Futures Institute (MFI) has been steadily outfitting the advanced manufacturing facility with state-of-the-art equipment to support its expanding research efforts and fulfill its mission to inspire, engineer, and lead technological and workforce advances for agile, intelligent, efficient, resilient, and sustainable manufacturing.
The latest addition to the facility is a flexible robotic testbed. Four six-axis industrial robot arms equipped with multiple sensors surround a worktable in the second-floor mezzanine area of MFI’s Mill 19 Building A location. Ceiling-mounted programmable light curtains provide safety by sensing when humans get too close to the robots, and the system then immediately disables their motion.
Designed to initially test and advance robotic assembly and disassembly using Lego® bricks, the testbed is also capable of being used to study other robotic functions in manufacturing, such as material handling, quality inspection, and more complex manipulation to thread small fasteners, to route electrical wiring, and even to assemble food items into snack packs.
Two autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) will be used to deliver Lego® bricks to and from the robot arms and will also be used in research aimed at training robots to move other materials and supplies efficiently and safely throughout a facility.
We’ve built this testbed to be flexible enough to support current research efforts, as well as speculative projects that will be undertaken to compete for new federal awards and other future sources of funding.Gary Fedder, Faculty Directory, Manufacturing Futures Institute
“We’ve built this testbed to accommodate both current and future research,” said Gary Fedder, MFI faculty director, who added that, “It is flexible enough to support current research efforts, as well as speculative projects that will be undertaken to compete for new federal awards and other future sources of funding.”
Like the additive manufacturing facilities and equipment at Mill 19 where students and faculty schedule time to conduct research on metals 3D printing, users will also need to reserve time to work with the robotic testbed. There are several research projects underway to advance the robots’ ability to assemble and disassemble parts, to build a sharable codebase, and to support associated factory digital twin research.
Lego® bricks were chosen as the building material because they are not only safe and fun to play with, but they can also be used for constructing complex geometries that researchers need to test and build data sets. They are also ideal for creating simple structures that can be used to demonstrate robotic and digital manufacturing capabilities to students and industry professionals who visit Mill 19.
Shobhit Aggarwal, who earned his master’s degree in integrated innovation for products and services from Carnegie Mellon earlier this year, was hired as an advanced manufacturing engineer by MFI to oversee the testbed. In addition to coordinating its activity, he will also be helping develop short courses to demonstrate to industry partners and visitors how robots can be employed in assembly/disassembly functions—a project that is funded in part by southwestern Pennsylvania’s federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge initiative.
“The testbed is essentially a production floor equipped with cutting-edge safety systems, logistics, a manufacturing execution system (MES), and industrial robots, providing an almost real-life environment to research, test, and gather data to develop groundbreaking technologies for manufacturing futures,” explained Aggarwal.
The testbed is essentially a production floor, providing an almost real-life environment to research, test, and gather data to develop groundbreaking technologies for manufacturing futures.Shobhit Aggarwal, Advanced Manufacturing Engineer, Manufacturing Futures Institute
Nearly all of the research at Mill 19 is being conducted to develop advanced manufacturing technologies. In addition to additive manufacturing and robotics research, the individual equipment and project cells like the robotic testbed at Mill 19 act as subjects for digital twin technology research.
Digital twin technology used in manufacturing creates virtual, interoperable models of equipment, production lines, or entire factories that update to physical twin data in order to aid in product design and development, process optimization, predictive maintenance, quality control, training and simulation, and real-time monitoring and control.
The digital twin of the testbed will generate real-time data related to the equipment performance, and provide insights that can make the system more efficient, agile and smart. As one of multiple project cells throughout the Mill 19 facility, the testbed will eventually be incorporated into a broader digital twin of the entire facility.
A growing codebase of utilities and APIs (application programming interfaces) associated with the testbed will enable both MFI researchers and visitors to more rapidly use the robots and focus on innovation.
The open-source software dubbed “MFI Codebase” will encompass an entire collection of source code, files, documentation, assets, and other resources for the software that will be used with other equipment and project cells throughout the facility.
A large video monitor near the testbed site, that can be used for presentations, will eventually also serve as a note board that will display and curate data streams of all of the equipment in the building.
These advanced technologies require the expertise of a wide range of researchers from the College of Engineering, as well as those working in computer science and other academic areas through the university. The testbed area is also outfitted with multiple work areas designed to accommodate the interdisciplinary teams who meet with one another and educate visitors at Mill 19.
“The remarkable combination of human intelligence, digital innovation and advanced manufacturing technology and equipment at Mill 19 ensures MFI’s ability to conduct groundbreaking research, educate manufacturing innovators, and work with partners to translate our discoveries into industry relevant applications,” said Gary Fedder.