The most natural thing in the world

In production, automation isn't anything special any more, although merchandise is normally taken away with human assistance. Can manufacturer Massilly, however, is cutting its own way and is switching to robot-controlled trucks.

It's like a roller coaster ride for cans. Sparkling silver sheet metal parts are drawn through Massilly's spacious factory hall in Cluny, France, on conveyor belts that seem to go on forever. In the midst of this, fully automated machines work on the details: cutting to size, punching lids, welding, printing, finishing. There's a constant sound of knocking, hissing, stamping and humming. “A tin can looks so simple, but it's an extremely intricate everyday object, from a technical perspective,” remarks Christophe Marteau, Massilly's chief technology officer (CTO). It needs precise dimensions, heat resistance and elasticity.

The company has made a conscious decision to invest in automation: “If we want to set ourselves apart from our competitors in the emerging markets, we don't have many levers,” explains Marteau. Quality is one, and a super-lean production process is another. “Automation may not create any new jobs,” he admits: “but it safeguards the ones that are already there.” Marteau remains standing a few steps away from a packing station where a large, robotic arm is picking up newly filled boxes of lids and loading them onto pallets. A red pallet stacker with a huge frame, broad fork and a body with lights and electronics is parked motionless beside it. As soon as a pallet is full, the Linde L-MATIC starts moving, completes a half-turn, loads up the pallet and drives it to another station a few meters away where it is wrapped in plastic film, and finally on to the ramp, which marks the transition from the factory to the high-bay storage facility. The entire process is automatic – controlled by robotics.

Automation is continually advancing in factories: robots no longer work only in cages on assembly lines, machines communicate with each other, and nowadays, a typical car production facility contains more robots than people. 'Industry 4.0' is a buzzword that represents a tidal change – and it is routine jobs that are particularly suitable for becoming automated. There is indeed a large number of factory workers moving between the conveyor belts, but virtually nobody is sorting parts or lifting loads; this sort of work is being done by machines. The factory employees' main tasks consist of monitoring, checking, and making swift corrections where necessary. Massilly is a French can manufacturer with a total of 20 factories in 18 countries and a global workforce numbering close on 1,300. In France, it is the market leader in the production of lids (so-called 'twist-off' caps), and it is ranked number three worldwide.

The company's main plant began testing robot-controlled vehicles as long ago as 2012. At the start, it was all about dealing with increasing numbers of orders: Massilly produced 1.5 billion lids in 2011; three years later, the number had jumped to two billion. Marteau saw great potential in the emerging technology. In early 2016, Massilly increased its fleet of Linde robotic vehicles to four. “Our products are constantly changing,” says Marteau. This also means changes to the materials flow and factory layout. Couldn't the path between the packing station and warehouse have been bridged by a conveyor belt? Marteau shakes his head: “That would have blocked important routes. The vehicles provide us with flexibility. They can also take a totally different route at any time.”

To do this, the vehicles depend on natural target navigation provided by Balyo, a French robotics specialist, which went into partnership with Linde in 2015. Using the technology, the automated trucks can find their way around the factory floor by themselves. They don't need laser reflectors or rails, but instead use structural elements, such as walls and shelving. This means that they can also handle significant distances without any trouble. The two newest pallet stackers, for example, take their pallets from the other end of the factory to the warehouse – and at a pretty impressive speed. Barely raising her eyes, a factory employee sidesteps one of the vehicles as if self-driving industrial trucks were the most natural things in the world. Which is precisely what they are, here in the factory. According to Marteau, transport is not only running more smoothly under the new system, but the number of accidents has fallen significantly: “A Linde robotic truck always drives in the same, reliable way,” he explains. Vehicles driven by people require their drivers' full concentration when setting off or estimating speed, whereas automated trucks never make misjudgments.

Meanwhile, industrialists from a range of renowned companies are coming from all over the world to see the trucks in action and to quiz Marteau on his experiences. This is because the trucks here are all performing standard tasks; the four industrial trucks could do what they're doing in Cluny in any other plant in the world. And this is precisely why they attract visitors. Marteau on the other hand is already setting his sights on the future. The warehouse would also be suitable for automated vehicles, he remarks. On the way back to his office, Marteau passes two industrial trucks that are being driven by employees. Is there a particular difficulty here that can't be solved by automation? “These are being manually driven because we can't automate everything at once,” answers Marteau. “But this will be our next step. We believe in the power of innovation.”

Dematic in China on a clear path of growth

Using today’s technologies to keep the past intact: How Dematic is automating vast library collections