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Flexible assembly

Automation was the answer to mass production. In the era of mass customisation, (production in small series with much variation), we design flexible assembly cells, the cost of which is comparable to the manufacturing of products in mass production. Depending on the kind of product, this can be done entirely manually, collaboratively (robots and men work efficiently alongside one another) and fully automated.  

Why this research?

So far, assembling a production line could only be done in a cost-effective way if it would serve for many identical parts because its programming was very expensive and time-consuming. To meet the increasing demand for high-quality personalised products at the cost of batch production and taking into account the high labour costs in Western Europe, we must start looking for solutions enabling the cooperation between smart machines and people.

We conduct research into flexible assembly cells that can cope with many product variations. Robots do the heavy work (sometimes literally) whereas human operators intervene for high-precision tasks. This interaction is essential for factories that wish to survive in future.

However, the central role that in modern production environments is assigned to human operators also entails that we must take into account realistic facts such as the ageing population and the shortage of technically skilled operators. In this context, smart technology not only refers to the fact that machines have become smarter than men but also that operators are optimally supported during the execution of their tasks. 

Concrete research objectives

The ultimate goal is to validate optimal work cell architectures. To realise this, we subdivide our research into three specific domains:

  • Dynamic, bi-directional, operator-specific support in case of a high variation in products
  • Shared work environments in which robots and human operators work together safely and can interact with one another
  • A framework for the architecture of self-adaptable work cells
    • Highly customisable, safe and intelligent models for configuring small series
    • Validated concepts for dynamic human-robot interaction 

For whom?

  • Manufacturing companies with assembly activities
    • In flexible, hybrid workplaces
    • In mass customisation
    • In a connected factory
    • With attention to the wellbeing of operators
    • That want to reduce the number of tasks without added value
    • That want to take the next step in lean manufacturing in a digital era
    • That want to work paperless
    • That want to proceed with Industry 4.0
  • Suppliers of automation systems and services

Concerned core labs

  • ProductionS
  • EDM (UHasselt)
  • ISyE (UGent)
  • PMA  (KULeuven)
  • R&MM (VUB)

Ongoing projects 

  • Operator_info: bi-directionele context-sensitive information sharing for operators (01/01/2016-31/12/2017)
  • Finrop: fast and intuitive robot planning (01/11/2016-01/11/2018)
  • OperatorKnowledge (01/01/2018-31/12/2019)
  • Elite (01/10/2017-31/09/2019)
  • Yves: augmented workers using smart robots in a manufacturing cell (01/01/2016-31/12/2019)
  • Multirob: rigorous approach for programming and optimal control of multirobot systems (01/04/2018-30/03/2022)
  • Flexas_VR: design framework for flexible assembly with operator VR validation (01/01/2018-31/12/2021)
  • Smart Production

Participating companies

  • ABB
  • Asco Industries
  • Atlas Copco
  • Barco nv
  • Bombardier Transportation
  • CNH Industrial Belgium nv
  • Continental Automotive Benelux bvba
  • Daikin Europe nv
  • Dana Belgium nv
  • Flexible Robotic Solutions
  • Optidrive nv
  • Picanol nv
  • Reynaers Aluminium
  • Sabca Limburg nv
  • Sagility
  • Terumo Europe nv
  • U Sentric
  • Van Hoecke Automation nv
  • Vitalo Industries nv 


Sonia Vanderlinden - cluster manager