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Production facilities are subject to constant change, especially in times of the fourth industrial revolution. Accordingly, there is an increasing exchange of machines and heavy equipment. Due to the heavy weight and usually cramped conditions, it is often very time-consuming to assemble and disassemble or reposition large machines. Not infrequently, this is still done by hand with the help of armored rollers. The spin-off FORMIC Transportsysteme of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has now developed a partially automated transport system for the exchange of production equipment that functions like a swarm.

Coupling of up to 15 vehicles

"Our system consists of a large number of separately driven vehicles that can lift a weight of up to 40 tons from the ground in a network and move it in a partially automated way," explains Dr. Maximilian Hochstein from the Institute of Materials Handling and Logistics Systems (IFL) at KIT. Transporting such heavy loads is possible by coupling up to 15 vehicles. "These are interconnected by radio and equipped with cameras so that they coordinate themselves and act synchronously," says Hochstein.

Simple control via joystick

"Machines, plants, and goods of various sizes and weights can thus be lifted comfortably and safely by a single person and moved by remote control," explains Dr. Benedikt Klee from the wbk Institute of Production Engineering at KIT. The control system, a joystick, still has to be operated manually, but the commands are followed automatically, he said. "The load is lifted from the ground and then moved in a highly flexible manner," Klee said. "Even a composite of three vehicles can transport a typical production machine in the manufacturing sector."

Triple innovation: concept, mechanics and software

The swarm concept itself is innovative, as are the mechanics of the individual vehicles and, finally, the control software, explains Tommi Kivelä of IFL. Theoretically, even more than 15 vehicles could be coupled and thus even heavier loads could be moved. "However, there are still limits to this due to the safety control system," says Kivelä.

For synchronized flow production

The founders of FORMIC want to address service providers for plant and machine relocations and companies that frequently have to carry out internal layout changes or machine transports. Manufacturers of large equipment such as machine tools are also part of the target group, as this enables synchronized flow production to be implemented in the manufacture of even heavy machinery. FORMIC is funded by the EXIST start-up grant, a support program of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection for start-ups from science, and is supported in an advisory capacity by KIT-Gründerschmiede.