Research aims for autonomous robots that disassemble and remanufacture parts and products

Research into disassembly processes could lead to autonomous robots being used in the UK remanufacturing industry.

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The EPSRC is providing £1.94m for the five-year project led by mechanical engineers at Birmingham University.

They aim to gain a fundamental understanding of disassembly processes before developing systems that can autonomously handle variabilities in a product.

Principal investigator Prof Duc Pham told The Engineer: “In remanufacturing you need to take things apart as a first step. We want to understand how mechanically all the forces – the torques and so on – affect the success of the disassembly operation.

“When you take things apart, as a human being we sense the resistance and we modify our movements in order to overcome the resistance.”

Tasks will include unscrewing, removal of pins from holes with small clearances, separation of press-fit components, extracting elastic parts such as O-rings and circlips, and breaking up of ‘permanently’ assembled components.

Feedback will be used to help guide the robot and avoid damaging the components being taken apart. The basic process knowledge will be used to create models, scheduling algorithms and learning tools to enable autonomous or semi-autonomous disassembly by robotic systems.

“We intend to make the robots collaborative, which means they can work with people safely and do not need to be put into cages,” Pham said.

“We want to study these operations in order to help the design of products so that later on they can be taken apart more easily. That will make it a lot easier in the future for people or robots to take things apart,” he added.

Strategies for planning and implementing multi-robot operations will also be developed, for when a disassembly task is too complex for one machine.

The project is being run in partnership with manufacturers Caterpillar, Meritor and MG Motor, along with the High Speed Sustainable Manufacturing Research Institute and the Manufacturing Technology Centre.

Remanufacturing is the process of returning a product to at least its original performance.  Compared with manufacturing, it can use as little as 10 per cent of the energy and raw materials required, while saving more than 80 per cent in CO2 emissions.

The project is one of three being supported with £6.2m of EPSRC funding aimed at furthering knowledge of the research challenges underlying the implementation of autonomous systems in UK manufacturing.