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A Different Approach to Mobile Robotics

Team of students at the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) in Ravensburg develops fully automated seating robot

According to a study conducted by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), technology can currently already perform more than 70% of the activities in a company. The experts behind the study see tremendous new areas of potential for professions in production technology or for simple, repetitive tasks. This was reason enough for a team of students at the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) in Ravensburg to look more closely into driverless transportation systems. Their focus lay in different ways to fully automate the setting up and clearing up of chairs in rooms and halls. The facilities at the campus in Friedrichshafen were also ideal for implementing their ideas in technical terms: The students have local access to a fully equipped experimentation workshop: A “Lernfabrik” (learning factory) has been set up on the campus to learn about connected manufacturing, technologies revolving around augmented reality, and even human-machine interaction. The research facility is part of a project funded by the Zeppelin Foundation in Friedrichshafen, and the initiative is being coordinated by IWT Wirtschaft und Technik GmbH (IWT), a company belonging to the Steinbeis Network. The Lernfabrik not only provides technical equipment, it also gives students access to expertise and experience.

The project team started by conducting a detailed survey of 350 potential customers with the aim of understanding the demand for an automatic chair arrangement system for halls, trade shows, and other event locations. The demand was certainly there: Some companies have to set up and clear away up to 2,500 chairs per day. But would such a technical solution be worth it in economic terms? This was another aspect the students looked at. Based on the findings of their research, they subdivided potential users of the robot into different groups and application areas. The first group comprises trade show organizers and convention centers, who have to set up chairs for visitors. The second group of potential users they looked at comprised people working in catering, who often have to set up rooms for special celebrations. Further possible users include event organizers, who also set up or clear away rooms full of chairs for clients and even offer this as a service.

The DHBW students then conducted a follow-up survey to examine the business case from a customer angle. The idea was to make the potential to automate the process more tangible and highlight the time it would save. The main factors that affect the financial viability of a seating robot are the purchasing costs and how adaptable the system is in use. Actual cost savings are only possible if using the system is flexible and straightforward. One downside is depreciation on the initial investment, and this stands in opposition to the hourly rates of trade show personnel.

Having established a theoretical framework for their project, it was time for the students to roll up their sleeves. As part of a collaborative program between DHBW Ravensburg and the IWT, the DHBW students worked under an IWT project manager, Kris Dalm, who helped them construct a demonstration unit for a fully automated seating robot. “We took on the seating robot project in three stages,” explained Christian Zull, the student who spearheaded the project. “First we selected a driverless transportation system, then we researched the software components, and then finally we set the thing up to match the task at hand.” The driverless transport system (DTS) was based on a solution provided by Omron. The system contains a variety of sensors for the DTS to work out its exact location, such as sonar and laser sensors. The DTS works out its position without needing any connection to a tablet.

The students designed and built a carrier frame for the chairs, mainly consisting of square profiles mounted on the unit. The bottom section is fixed to the DTS, allowing the other parts to move up and down a vertical guide rail. The moving parts are controlled by a screw jack system driven by an electric motor. The energy required by the electric motor is supplied directly by the DTS. Finally, there is a control unit to make sure the motor and the DTS work in unison. This ensures the lifting fixture can be moved and positioned.

The software used by the unit was partially provided by the manufacturer, but some elements were taken from a pool of open source solutions. To position the DTS, the students decided to use software called Mobile Planner because it also enables the unit to be remotely controlled.

For both the DHBW and IWT, the seating robot was one of many projects that involved smart DTS solutions, and the systems can be used in a plethora of different fields. It will be exciting to see which applications catch on in the long term in a non-industrial setting. The Friedrichshafen campus will continue pursuing the seating robot concept. And who knows – perhaps the students’ DTS will turn up one day at an event organized by the DHBW or IWT!