A red-black robot taxi bends around the corner, flashes and stops in front of Andre Hellinger. It’s part of the Driverless Transport System (DTS) that Hellinger and the DTS project team have accompanied from its pilot phase in 2016 to series production in 2018. Employees and visitors at Audi have long since become accustomed to the sight of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) in Audi production. They glide silently through the production halls, load shopping baskets and bring components to the conveyor belt. In Neckarsulm, however, a true pioneer fleet is in use: Navigated by the building structure, integrated into the Group IT, controlled according to the taxi principle.
Driverless transport vehicles in use for the Audi A8
One of the Volkswagen Group's most modern Driverless Transport Systems (DTS) is in use in Audi production at the Neckarsulm location. Its special trait: The fleet navigates according to the building structure. The project team shows how the DTS system works.
AGV: Unique series technology
Hellinger explains what makes the driverless transport system in the service of the Audi A8 so special: “Up to now, our AGVs were guided on predefined lines such as a magnetic track or with the aid of RFID tags on fixed routes. Now it’s different,” he says, pointing to the tablet in his hand: “Each of the 30 vehicles in Neckarsulm has its own navigation system with a map of Hall A11”. The virtual routes are stored on the map of the robot taxi that can be seen on the tablet’s screen: The route is pre-programmed from the station, where the AGV loads goods, to the conveyor section, where in turn panorama roofs are installed fully automatically.
In addition, each new AGV from Grenzebach is equipped with two laser scanners: At a height of 80 millimeters, a laser scanner at the front and rear observes the route and uses striking elements in the hall for orientation, such as columns. With the help of laser scanners, the vehicle’s able to calculate where on the map it’s located. On this base, it moves freely on its road, always looking for the best path. Two motors make the electrically driven AGV very maneuverable and enable precise maneuvering. “Thanks to the laser scanners, the AGV can move flexibly on the different routes. And new routes can be programmed much faster,” says Hellinger. “Our AGV system is unique in the Group as a series technology in this dimension.”
Controlled by the fleet manager
The entire DTS is controlled by software, the so-called fleet manager. AGV and fleet manager together form the driverless transport system. The fleet manager assigns the transport orders according to the taxi principle: Instead of fixed route assignments, the vehicle is always assigned the order with the shortest distance to the order location. The 1.2 x 0.7 meters robot taxis can transport a wide variety of loads: From supermarket shopping baskets to wiring harnesses and panorama roofs. These components and the finished shopping baskets from the supermarket are made available for collection by the driverless fleet in sequence wagons at various stations. Each sequence wagon is – depending on the contents – of different sizes and weights. This is why there are magnets located at the sequence wagons’ bottom: The DTS charges the sequence wagon, it recognizes the charge’s size by the arrangement of the magnets. The driverless taxi automatically switches on a correspondingly large protective field: If someone enters this area, the device stops immediately in order to avoid an accident. For safety reasons, it doesn’t drive faster than 3.6 km/h.
An exchange between robot colleagues
Once the DTS systems have picked up their goods, they travel directly to the production line on the upper floor by using the freight elevator. The fleet manager automatically controls a lift reserved especially for the fleet with space for up to ten vehicles. If one of the DTSs has nothing to do, it’s automatically sent to the loading mat for a quick energy kick. The fleet manager enables the DTS to communicate with the infrastructure and production facilities in the A8 assembly line.
These include the orange colleagues who are responsible for installing the panorama glass roofs for the fourth generation of the Audi A8 fully automatically. The pearl necklace principle developed in Neckarsulm ensures that the panorama roofs from the supplier arrive at Audi in exact sequence.
A DTS drives the containers with roofs to the appropriate belt section where an assembly robot removes the roof, installs it and deposits the empty packaging. If the container is empty, the fleet manager receives a signal and sends out an DTS with new panorama roofs.
Cornerstone for further intelligent transport systems
For ensuring that the fleet manager knows when to drive which sequence wagon to which destination, the driverless transport system from Neckarsulm was connected to the group’s logistics IT. For this purpose, a group-wide uniform IT interface was developed that was used in Neckarsulm for the first time ever. In future, it can also be used for other AGV projects. “Our Smart DTS from Neckarsulm is thus an important cornerstone for further intelligent transport systems throughout the Volkswagen Group,” says Hellinger.
With each transport order, the DTS system produces valuable data that Hellinger and his team evaluate specifically in order to further optimize the Smart DTS. In the event of malfunctions, DTS supervisor Thomas Neininger comes to hand. The new robot fleet is tirelessly at the service of the A8 – but the most important decisions are still made by humans.
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