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Automated robotic assembly has evolved over the last two decades but still falls short of early expectations. Current state-of-the-art assembly systems have a number of shortcomings such as costly and time-consuming changeover, parts feeding problems, barely adequate inherent precision, lack of programmability and flexibility in horizontal conveyances, limited robot workspaces, large dedicated cleanroom floor space, line balancing difficulties, and coarse quantization of production capacity.
We have begun to develop a distributed architecture for rapidly reconfigurable assembly systems which addresses many of these problems in the domain of precision high-value products such as magnetic storage devices, palmtop and wearable computers and other high-density "mechatronic" equipment. Our approach extensively draws on high-speed wide- and local-area communication and intensive distributed computation. The architecture supports the creation of miniature assembly factories (minifactories) built from small modular robotic components, and occupying drastically less floor space than today's automated assembly lines. Our goals are to reduce assembly system changeover times, facilitate geographically distributed assembly system design and deployment, and to increase product quality levels.
We expect that our endeavor will be a difficult undertaking. Dan Whitney of MIT has contrasted "assembly in the small," referring to the detailed and complicated process whereby interaction forces between the part and subassembly result in successful assembly, with "assembly in the large," referring to the overall socio-economic problem of producing a viable assembly system. Any successful automation strategy must clearly address both of these aspects.
In this project, we are developing the key electromechanical elements including novel subproduct couriers, manipulator/feeders, and other modular components. We are implementing a distributed realtime computer architecture, modeling and simulation software, high-level network communication protocol, and graphical programming tools to support this vision. "Real" minifactories will be programmed by directly interfacing with automatically synchronized "virtual" minifactories.