Robots, robots, robots… and AI – How BMW is automating its supply chain functions
Note, this article is continued from a previous post, entitled ‘1.8k suppliers, 31m parts, 10k vehicles – How BMW is making sense of its supply chain’. Click here to go to the previous article.
But BMW’s major drive, to date, has been around automation. Indeed, the number and variety of its robots are ‘legion’, or at least century-like, and on a fast-track career path. BMW has build a cloud operating platform, BMW Services, for centralised control and management of them all – staff just enter driving rules and workflows to set them in motion, and monitor their progress around its facilities.
Back in 2015, BMW joined forces with the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) to develop self-driving ‘smart transport robots’ (STR) for transporting ‘roll containers’ (containers with wheels) through its production halls.
A second generation STR, powered by a BMW i3 battery, is now in operation at BMW’s Regensburg plant, capable of shifting one-ton loads. Its STR robots use SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping) navigation, requiring no external in-building transmitters. It makes deployments simple, says BMW. A smaller ‘miniSTR’ version, carrying loads of up to 50 kg, has also been developed.
The Regensburg body-shop has also trialled autonomous lift trucks, or ‘ants’, during the past 12 months, deployed to bring components from the ‘supermarket’ to the installation site. They can interface with other automated industrial trucks, and have built-in sensors for obstacle avoidance. Eight ants will be supplied to other production areas shortly, it says.
It has deployed autonomous vehicles outdoors, as well. BMW’s plant in Dingolfing in Southern Bavaria has developed an automation kit, which enables old tugger trains to be made autonomous.
Traditional rolling stock at the site can even be programmed with dynamic route guidance to prioritise deliveries. Control and navigation is achieved via laser signals, scanning the environment to create room profiles. Dingolfing is slated for 20 autonomous tugger trains this year.
Smart devices are being deployed to promote paperless logistics. Logistics staff in Dingolfing have been issued with smart watches to extend the tugger-train system: they get a vibration alert when tugger trains approach, messages about which to unload, and a display to route their onwards journey.
Meanwhile, BMW is using transport robots at its Leipzig plant to bring trailers to and from the loading bays. These so-called ‘auto-trailers’, with a payload of up to 30 tons, drive underneath the trailer and steer it through the plant. They also navigate by laser, without additional guidelines or markings. On-board sensors and cameras provide a 360° view of the site.
Its auto-trailers are scheduled for Dingolfing and Spartanburg, in southern Carolina. About 1,200 trailer-shunting manoeuvres take place every day at the Spartanburg plant, the company’s largest anywhere. A smaller version (‘auto-boxes’), with a 25-ton payload, designed for moving lattice boxes between plant halls, are pegged for launch sortly at Dingolfing, as well as plants in Berlin and Shenyang, in China.
Besides, BMW is rolling out robots to help with menial factory manouvres, including splitting and placing plastic boxes (‘split-bots’ and ‘place-bots’), picking parts from supply racks (‘pick-bots’), and stacking containers before redistribution (‘sort-bots’). It is testing a pneumatic gripper robot in Regensburg, which can scale a vertical storage unit and remove (and even assemble) parts.
The company is also tracking finished vehicles on their way to dealerships by making use of their ‘connected distribution’ function, which transmits their geolocation and status via a mobile connection every time the engine is switched off. The function is disabled when the ConnectedDrive function, which runs off the same technology, is activated at the dealership.