Flex uses mobility to stay lean – Innovative transportation robots take the pressure off employees

‘Live Smarter’ is the motto of Flex, one of the world’s leading technology companies. For Flex, making the life of its customers more comfortable is primarily a matter of keeping its processes lean, efficient, and flexible. This global company meets this challenge by always keeping its ears and eyes open for new and innovative manufacturing technologies. Industry 4.0 and IoT (the Internet of Things) certainly offer such innovations.

As a result, two mobile robots supplied by the Danish manufacturer Mobile Industrial Robots have now taken up residence in Flex’s Austrian location. The two MiR100 robots independently transport goods internally. The automation of these monotonous tasks takes the strain off the employees at Flex and enable them to devote more time to more important activities. And to fully exploit the potential of mobile robotics, there are already plans to expand the new system in the near future and to use the flexible robots and the MiRHook system in other areas.

At Flex’s Austrian location in Althofen/Kärnten, companies from the fields of medical technology, industry, and automotive technology can outsource virtually their complete value-creation chain – from product design to manufacturing, engineering, and logistics. In order to meet customer requirements and at the same time, remain profitable, the ‘Lean Six Sigma’ approach is deeply anchored in the company’s philosophy. The primary aim of this management method is the lean and efficient design of the value-creation chain.


Innovative technology for complex challenges

“A particular challenge for us is the high level of complexity that we encounter during manufacturing,” says Christoph Schaller, Director of Engineering at Flex. “Our production is very flexible, and this, of course, entails particular challenges for internal goods transportation as well. For instance, we often find ourselves in the situation that numerous transportation runs occur in a very short space of time from the main warehouse to the manufacturing area. In this connection, it is, of course, very important to reduce the traveling time as much as possible.” About a year and a half ago, discussions began regarding how the unnecessary traveling time could be reduced. But the idea of a transportation system with magnetic strips was rejected relatively quickly. The company‘s production layout generally changes every three to six months and, according to Schaller, installing a new magnetic strip every time there was a production layout change would mean considerable additional expenditure. “At the 2015 Hannover Trade Fair, we became aware of the mobile robots offered by Mobile Industrial Robots. After examining this system, we concluded that we had found a product that could meet our highly flexible requirements in terms of intralogistics, and yet it was very affordable.”

In the same year, 2015, the first of the two MiR100 robots was finally purchased, with the second following just six months later. Thanks to good support with integration from the manufacturer and its Austrian distributor, Haba Verpackung GmbH, the mobile robots were in daily use shortly after the evaluation phase. Bernhard Haba, Managing Director at Haba Verpackung GmbH, sees great potential for the future of mobile robotics. “Innovative companies such as Flex often have highly qualified employees – and to use these for transportation tasks represents a loss of efficiency. As conveyance and packaging experts, we see increased interest in the market for mobile automated solutions such as the MiR100. Numerous companies are finally recognizing the additional benefits which can be seen not only in terms of figures but also in the satisfaction of their employees.”


A genuine door opener

Thanks to the mobile goods transportation helpers at Flex, there is now a fully automated 600-meter stretch running without interruption from the main warehouse to the production area, with the load weight of the robot up to 100 kilograms. There are certainly some obstacles to the robots on this stretch, in the shape of high-speed interior doors, for example. “But on a day-to-day basis, these aren’t a problem. The communication system in the MiR100 is connected to the doors and tells them when they need to open. This is working very well,” says a confident Christoph Schaller. “This is also the case when people cross the paths of the robot: If there is sufficient space, the MiR simply moves around the person. If not, it stops briefly until it is free to proceed.” The robots are now covering, on average 200 kilometers a month – a considerable distance, and one that previously had to be covered by human employees.


Work time is more productive thanks to mobile robots

The automation of internal goods transportation has already paid off for employees. Thanks to the new technology, they have largely been freed from monotonous transportation tasks. The resulting increase in time available has enabled them to focus more on the area of logistics. In this way, substantial process optimizations have been achieved, as Christoph Schaller explains: “Transporting goods from A to B is now carried out by robots, and the activities of the employees have therefore increasingly shifted to goods receipt. For this reason, there is now much more time available in the main warehouse for pre-portioning of the goods deliveries to the production facility, likewise for the filling of fixed locations. As a result, the portions are now much more equitable, which ultimately benefits the employees at all stages of our production chain.”


People and robots: It’s all about collaboration

To what extent the new technology is to be regarded as successful depends not only on the technical and commercial aspects, according to Christoph Schaller: “An important success factor for us is also whether a system is accepted by the people who work with it daily.” At Flex, the open-minded corporate culture means people are generally open to new technology. But the introduction of mobile robots represents a first for the employees. “The MiR100 is very quiet after all; it hardly makes any noise at all. So we asked ourselves: will the mobile robot stop in time even if I do not notice it? But the fact that it would quickly become apparent. These concerns are not an issue with us,” said Martin Knirschnig, Materials Lead at Flex. The safe interaction between human and robot is already being experienced at this world-leading technology company.

Another important point for Schaller and his team in this connection was user-friendliness. “If the employees had to attend five courses to learn how they move goods from A to B with a new system, then, of course, there would be some convincing to do. But the programming of the MiR100 is straightforward and intuitive. So the robot has been very positively received by the workforce.”


Equipped for Industry 4.0

The use so far of the two MiR100 robots has proved a very positive experience. In the medium term, however, the potential of mobile robotics will be even more fully exploited. Its scope of activities in the company will be gradually expanded – and to this end, will now also use the patented MiRHook system from Mobile Industrial Robots. This new product component can be connected directly to the MiR100 and will enable the fully automated transportation of carts weighing up to 300 kilograms. “The first step was the use of robots for transporting goods from the main warehouse,” explains Christoph Schaller. “When we saw that working perfectly, we asked ourselves: what other possibilities does this technology offer for us? And of course, the possibilities are even further extended by the Hook system, with the system also becoming more flexible to use as a result. The next logical step for us is to use the robots in combination with the Hook system for the transportation of finished goods to the dispatch department.”

And the options for use are still far from being exhausted: a mobile robot has been designed for waste management as well. In addition, work is now ongoing to fully integrate the ‘Fleet Management‘ robot control system from the Danish robot manufacturer into the planning system for intralogistics at Flex. In times of the IoT and increasing connectivity, this is an obvious idea to bring together the corporate culture at Flex and the potential of mobile robotics.