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Title:
SYSTEM AND METHODS FOR SIMULTANEOUSLY PRODUCING PRODUCTS USING INDEPENDENTLY GUIDED VEHICLES
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2019/173433
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
Methods for simultaneously producing products in a single production system are disclosed. The method may be used to produce different fluent products and other types of products including assembled products. In some cases, the method includes providing a plurality of articles which are components of the products to be produced. The method further involves providing a system that includes a workspace, a plurality of unit operation stations, and a plurality of vehicles for the articles. At least some of the vehicles may be independently routable around at least a portion of workspace which is trackless. The method further includes simultaneously sending one article-loaded vehicle to a unit operation station where a step in the production of a product is performed and another article-loaded vehicle to a unit operation station where a step in the production of a different product is performed.

Inventors:
ROYCE, Daniel, Richard (One Procter & Gamble Plaza, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45202, US)
WEIL, Darryll, Joseph, II (One Procter & Gamble Plaza, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45202, US)
SAWIN, Philip, Andrew (One Procter & Gamble Plaza, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45202, US)
Application Number:
US2019/020891
Publication Date:
September 12, 2019
Filing Date:
March 06, 2019
Export Citation:
Click for automatic bibliography generation   Help
Assignee:
THE PROCTER & GAMBLE COMPANY (One Procter & Gamble Plaza, Cincinnati, Ohio, 45202, US)
International Classes:
B67C3/00; G05B19/418; G05D1/02
Domestic Patent References:
WO1992006419A11992-04-16
Foreign References:
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CN2017087539W2017-06-08
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
KREBS, Jay A. (Global IP ServicesOne Procter & Gamble Plaza, C, Cincinnati Ohio, 45202, US)
Download PDF:
Claims:
CLAIMS

What is claimed is:

1. A system for producing fluent products comprising: a plurality of containers for holding a fluent material; a plurality of vehicles for containers, wherein a container is disposed on a respective vehicle to form a container- loaded vehicle, there being a plurality of container- loaded vehicles; a workspace within which container-loaded vehicles are propellable, wherein at least a portion of said workspace within which container-loaded vehicles are propellable is trackless; and at least one unit operation station that is located in said workspace and configured to perform a container treatment operation on at least one container-loaded vehicle, wherein at least some of the plurality of container-loaded vehicles are independently routable using a common control system through said at least a portion of said workspace to deliver at least some of the containers to the at least one unit operation station for performing a container treatment operation on at least some of said containers.

2. The system of Claim 1 further comprising a control system in communication with at least one of the vehicles wherein said at least one of the vehicles is independently controlled by the control system; and, wherein the system further comprises at least one vehicle that is not controlled by the control system, and said vehicle that is not controlled by the control system is joined to and follows at least one vehicle that is controlled by the control system.

3. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein the workspace defines at least one surface on which at least one of the vehicles travels, wherein at least a portion of the surface is configured to agitate the article being transported on the vehicle.

4. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein at least one of the vehicles travels along a path, and the system is configured to control the movement of the vehicle along at least a portion of its path so that the movement of the vehicle causes agitation of the article being transported on the vehicle.

5. A method for simultaneously producing different fluent products in a single production system, said method comprising the steps of: providing the system of claim 1 , wherein at least some of said vehicles are independently routable through said at least a portion of said workspace using said control system; providing a plurality of empty containers, said containers comprising a first container and a second container; providing a plurality of vehicles; loading said first empty container on a vehicle to form a container-loaded vehicle; loading said second empty container on a vehicle to form a container-loaded vehicle; and simultaneously sending one of said container-loaded vehicles to a filling unit operation station where a fluent product is dispensed into said first container and another one of said container- loaded vehicles to a filling unit operation station where a different fluent product is dispensed into said second container.

6. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein said unit operation stations comprise at least two filling unit operation stations.

7. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein said control system is a common control system.

8. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein the container treatment operation is selected from the group consisting of a filling operation, a decorating operation, and a capping operation.

9. The system of claim 8, wherein the decorating operation decorates the article by applying by means of material deposition, transferring to an article, transforming a property of the article, or combinations thereof.

10. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein the vehicles comprise a movable payload platform.

11. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein at least one vehicle comprises one or more omni wheels.

12. The system of claim 11, wherein the at least one vehicle comprising one or more omni wheels may travel in any direction with a zero turning radius.

13. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein the system comprises up to one hundred vehicles and wherein at least two of the up to one hundred vehicles are connected.

14. The system of any of the preceding claims, wherein the at least one unit operation station is selected from a station consisting of loading articles onto vehicles, unloading articles from vehicles, filling, capping, uncapping, inspecting, decorating, mixing, assembling, forming all or a portion of a container, bringing together components of a container, maintenance, shrink wrapping, weighing, vacuum application, vacuum recharge, or combinations thereof.

Description:
SYSTEM AND METHODS FOR SIMULTANEOUSLY PRODUCING PRODUCTS USING INDEPENDENTLY GUIDED VEHICLES

TECHNICAL FIELD

The systems and methods for simultaneously producing products using independently guided vehicles are described herein.

BACKGROUND

Many types of systems and methods for producing various products are currently in use. Many current types of manufacturing processes are mass production processes that are designed to produce large quantities of a single type of product on a large scale on one or more manufacturing lines. While such manufacturing lines generally serve the purpose of making a single type of product very well, these manufacturing lines are not well suited to make different types of products, or for making changes to a given product. To provide consumers with a diverse product line, a manufacturer must employ many different high speed manufacturing lines which can be expensive and space intensive. Alternatively, a manufacturer has to stop production on a manufacturing line to make changes to the same in order to make changes to a product. Such changeovers are often time consuming and expensive due to the associated equipment downtime.

For example, high speed container filling systems are well known and used in many different industries. In many of the systems, fluids are supplied to containers to be filled through a series of pumps, pressurized tanks and flow meters, fluid filling nozzles, and/or valves to help ensure the correct amount of fluid is dispensed into the containers. These high speed container filling systems are typically configured to only fill one type of container with one type of fluid. When a different container type and/or different fluid is desired from the system, the configuration of the system must be changed (e.g., different nozzles, different carrier systems, etc.) which can be time consuming, costly, and can result in increased downtimes.

These high speed container filling systems are also typically incapable of providing different containers and arrangements of containers in a package without manual handling of the containers and/or packaging which can be time consuming, expensive, and frequently inaccurate.

Track systems, such as the MAGNEMOVER LITE® linear synchronous motor system available from MagneMotion, Inc. of Devens, MA, U.S.A. are known for conveying articles for various purposes, such as for analyzing blood samples. The MAGNEMOVER® LITE intelligent conveyor system, and the components thereof, are described in U.S. Patents 6,011,508; 6,101,952; 6,499,701; 6,578,495; 6,781,524; 6,917,136; 6,983,701; 7,448,327; 7,458,454; and 9,032,880. Such track systems have the advantage that they can convey articles independently and at different speeds. However, such track systems are expensive, and are limited in that the articles must remain on the track when they are being conveyed, and their direction of movement is limited to the configuration of the track.

Trackless systems are known for known for transporting inventory items. Such systems are described in U.S. Patent 7,912,574 B2; U.S. Patent 8,805,574 B2; and U.S. Patent Pub. 2016/0334799 Al. However, challenges arise in attempting to manufacture products using trackless systems since a much higher level of precision is required. For instance, if it is desired to fill bottles on independently guided vehicles, it is difficult to precisely align the mouth of the bottle under a filling nozzle. U.S. Patent 8,798,787 discloses a trackless system for assembling some types of products. However, no description of a system and method for producing fluent products, and solving the unique challenges therewith, is provided.

Thus, it would be advantageous to provide a system and method of producing products that are not limited to producing articles on a conventional manufacturing line, or on a track system. It would be advantageous to provide a system and method of producing products that is more versatile and can produce different products simultaneously. It would also be advantageous to provide a system and a method that allows for on-demand fulfillment of orders without requiring manual packing.

SUMMARY

Systems and methods for simultaneously producing products using independently guided vehicles are disclosed.

The systems and methods can be used to produce any suitable type of product. Such products can comprise fluent products or assembled products. Several non-limiting examples of systems and methods for producing fluent products and assembled products are summarized below.

The systems and methods utilize an automated system and a plurality of vehicles, at least some of which may be independently routable through the system. A plurality of articles are provided which comprise at least a first article and a second article. The first and second articles comprise components of the products to be produced. At least some of the vehicles may be independently routable through the system to deliver the first and second articles to at least one of at least two unit operation stations.

In some embodiments, one article-loaded vehicle is simultaneously sent to a unit operation station where a step in the production of a product is performed and another one of said article-loaded vehicles to a unit operation station where a step in the production of a different product is performed.

In some embodiments, a system for making fluent products is provided which comprises a plurality of containers for holding a fluent material, a plurality of vehicles for containers, and a system for routing independently guided container-loaded vehicles. The system also comprises at least one unit operation station that is configured to perform a container treatment operation on at least one container or the contents thereof, of a container-loaded vehicle. The plurality of container- loaded vehicles are independently routable through the system to deliver at least some of the containers to the at least one unit operation station for performing a container treatment operation on at least some of the containers.

In some embodiments, a system for making fluent products is provided which comprises a plurality of first containers, a plurality of second containers, at least two unit operation stations located in the system, and a plurality of vehicles propellable through the system. Each of the plurality of first containers has a shape, and appearance, an opening, and a volume for holding a fluent material. Each of the plurality of second containers has a shape, an appearance, an opening, and a volume for holding a fluent material. One or more of the shape, appearance, and the volume of each of the second containers is different from one or more of the shape, appearance, and the volume, respectively, of each of the first containers. One or more of the first containers and one or more of the second containers are disposed on respective vehicles, and the one or more first containers and second containers are empty at the time they first become disposed on respective vehicles. The plurality of vehicles are routable through the system to facilitate simultaneous delivery of the first containers and the second containers to different unit operation stations.

In some embodiments, a system for making fluent products is provided which comprises at least one container for holding a fluent material, a plurality of unit operation stations, and a plurality of vehicles propellable through the system. The container has at least one opening and at least one closure is provided for selectively sealing the opening(s) of the container. One of the plurality of unit operation stations within the system is configured to dispense fluent material into a container. Each container is disposed on a respective vehicle, and the plurality of vehicles are independently routable through the system to deliver at least one container and at least one closure to at least one unit operation station for applying a closure onto a container.

In some embodiments, a system for making fluent products is provided which comprises at least one first container and at least one second container for holding a fluent material, at least one unit operation station for dispensing fluent material, and a plurality of vehicles propellable through the system. A first container and a second container are disposed on the same or different vehicles. Each vehicle is independently routable through the system to deliver the first and second containers to the at least one unit operation station. The first container and the second container receive one or more fluent materials dispensed by one or more filling unit operation stations, wherein the filling unit operation stations are configured to dispense fluent material so that the first and second fluent compositions in the first and second containers differ from one another. The first and second fluent compositions may differ in one or more of the following ways. There may be a difference in the presence or type of at least one ingredient in the fluent composition in the first container and that the fluent composition in the second container. In addition, or alternatively, the fluent compositions in the first and second containers have at least one common ingredient, and at least one of the following relationships is present: (a) the difference in weight percentage of the same ingredient in the two fluent compositions is greater than or equal to about 1.1 as determined by dividing the weight percent of the ingredient that is present in the greater amount in the two fluent compositions by the weight percent of the same ingredient that is present in the lesser amount in the two fluent compositions; and (b) when the weight percentage of at least one of the ingredients common to both the first and second containers is present in the two fluent composition in an amount of at least 2%, and the difference of the weight percent of the same ingredient in the two fluent compositions is greater than or equal to 2%. In some embodiments, a system for making fluent products is provided which comprises a plurality of containers for holding a fluent material, a plurality of unit operation stations disposed within the system, and a plurality of vehicles propellable through the system. Each container is disposed on one of the vehicles, and each vehicle is independently routable through the system to deliver the containers to at least one unit operation station. At least some of the vehicles have associated therewith a unique route through the system assigned by a control system to facilitate simultaneous production of different finished products.

In some embodiments, a system for making fluent products is provided which comprises a plurality of containers for holding a fluent material, a plurality of vehicles for containers, a plurality of unit operation stations disposed within the system and configured to cooperate to create at least one finished product. Each container is disposed on a vehicle, and the plurality of vehicles are independently routable through the system to deliver at least some of the containers to at least one unit operation station. The system further comprises a control system comprising one or more controller units which: receives demand for finished products to be made; determines a route for a vehicle, where said route is determined based on a status of one or more unit operation stations; causes a vehicle to be propelled to progress along said determined route so as to create one or more of said demanded finished products; and, delivers one or more finished products to an unloading station.

In some embodiments, a method of producing different fluent products on a single production line is provided. The method comprises the steps of: (a) providing a system within which container-loaded vehicles are propellable; (b) providing a plurality of empty containers comprising a first container and a second container; (c) providing a plurality of vehicles; (d) loading the first and second empty containers onto one or two vehicles; and (e) sending one of the container-loaded vehicles to a filling unit operation station wherein a fluent product is dispensed into the first container and another one of the container-loaded vehicles to a filling unit operation station where a different fluent product is simultaneously dispensed into the second container. Steps (a)-(c) may occur in any suitable order.

In some embodiments, a system for making fluent products comprising mixing or agitation of the product during routing from any one operation station to any other operation station is provided. This mixing may be provided by any of a number of on-board mixing apparatuses that reside on-board of the vehicle transporting the container; or mixing may be provided by shaking the entire vehicle carrying one or more containers. In some embodiments, a system for making assembled products is provided which comprises a holder on which a product will be assembled, a plurality of unit operation stations disposed through the system configured to assemble components to create a finished product, and a plurality of vehicles propellable through the system. Each holder is disposed on one of the vehicles, and each vehicle may be independently routable through the system to deliver the holders to at least one unit operation station where an assembly operation is performed. Components for assembly can be supplied to the unit operation stations by an external supply system or delivered by one of the plurality of vehicles.

In some embodiments, the first vehicle carrying the first article and the second vehicle carrying the second article may be routable so that: the first vehicle carrying the first article is routable to form a customized product; and the second vehicle carrying the second article is routable in a separate stream of products from the first article to form a second stream of mass produced products.

Any of the embodiments, or features thereof, described herein may be combined with any of the other embodiments, or features thereof, in any suitable manner.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

It is believed that certain embodiments will be better understood from the following description taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings in which:

FIG. 1 is a schematic plan view depicting one embodiment of a system for producing products.

FIG. 2 is a schematic plan view of an alternative configuration of a system for producing products.

FIG. 3 is a schematic perspective view of a system having different levels and ramps for transporting vehicles between different levels within the system.

FIG. 4 is a fragmented schematic view of a portion of a system having different levels and an elevator to transport articles therebetween.

FIG. 5 is an exploded perspective view of one embodiment of a vehicle and a container to be associated with the vehicle. FIG. 6A is a perspective view of the vehicle shown in FIG. 5 with a container in the form of a bottle thereon.

FIG. 6B is a perspective view of the vehicle shown in FIG. 5 with a package and a pallet thereon.

FIG. 6C is a perspective view of the vehicle shown in FIG. 5 with a container in the form of a drum thereon.

FIG. 6D is a perspective view of the vehicle shown in FIG. 5 with a container in the form of a pouch thereon, wherein the vehicle is provided with a mechanism for opening the pouch.

FIG. 6E is a perspective view of several vehicles connected together to form a train of vehicles.

FIG. 7 is a perspective view depicting a filling/capping station.

FIG. 8A is a perspective view showing one embodiment of a mechanism for acquiring a vehicle when the vehicle is brought into the vicinity of a unit operation station.

FIG. 8B is a perspective view showing the mechanism for acquiring the vehicle in FIG. 8A in a closed position.

FIG. 8C is a perspective view showing another embodiment of a mechanism for acquiring a vehicle when the vehicle is brought into the vicinity of a unit operation station.

FIG. 8D is a perspective view showing another embodiment of a mechanism for acquiring a vehicle when the vehicle is brought into the vicinity of a unit operation station.

FIG. 9 is a schematic view of a control system for the system described herein.

FIG. 10 is a flow chart depicting a Sequencing Phase of one embodiment of a control routine implemented by the control system.

FIG. 11 is a flow chart depicting one embodiment of a Demand Propagation Phase of the control routine implemented by the control system. FIG. 12 is a flow chart depicting one embodiment of an Effective Route Identification Phase of the control routine implemented by the control system.

FIGS. 13A and 13B are flow charts depicting parts of one embodiment of a Route Ranking Phase of the control routine implemented by the control system.

FIG. 14 is a schematic view of a system used for making assembled products.

FIG. 15 is a schematic side view of a vehicle carrying an assembled product.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION

Definitions

The term“article”, as used herein, refers to a product, a package, a label, or any portion, component, or partially formed part of any of the foregoing. In the case of fluent products, the article may comprise a container and/or its contents. When there are multiple articles, they may be referred to as a first article, a second article, a third article, etc.

The term“assembled products”, as used herein, refers to products that are formed by assembling (that is, mechanically joining) different components to form a complete article. As used herein, the filling of containers with fluent products, labeling such containers, and applying closures to the same, are not considered to cause fluent products to be“assembled products” since the fluent product itself is not formed by mechanically joining components together.

The term“capping”, as used herein, refers to applying any suitable type of closure to a container, and includes but is not limited to applying a cap to a container.

The term“constraints”, as used herein as in“constraints on arriving at one or more unit operation stations”, refers to limitations or restrictions on a vehicle arriving at one or more unit operation stations. Examples of constraints on arriving at one or more unit operation stations include: the infeed queue not being full; and requirements that one or more containers arrive before one or more other containers in order to form a specific package.

The term“consumer”, as used herein, refers to an intended user of a product. The term“consumer product”, as used herein, includes, but is not limited to consumable products that are regularly and frequently consumed by a consumer and need to be replenished. Components of consumer products that comprise one or more components that are less frequently consumed (such as razor blade handles) and components that are more frequently replenished (such as razor blades) are together and alone considered to comprise consumer products. The term“consumer product” may include those known in the industry as“fast moving consumer goods” (FMCG’s). The term“consumer product” may, in some cases, be specified as excluding durable consumer products (such as shoes and textile goods that are intended to be worn and reworn). Even though prescription pharmaceuticals are consumed on a frequent basis, in some cases, the term“consumer products” may be specified as excluding prescription pharmaceuticals.

The term“container”, as used herein, refers to an article that is capable of holding a material, such as a fluent material, and includes, but is not limited to bottles, unit dose pods, pouches, sachets, boxes, packages, cans, and cartons. The containers can have a rigid, flexi- resilient, or flexible structure in whole or in part.

The term“container- loaded”, as used herein, means having one or more containers disposed thereon.

The term“container treatment operation”, as used herein, refers to one or more of the following unit operations: (a) a filling operation station for dispensing fluent material into a container; (b) a decorating operation; and (c) a capping operation. The term“container treatment operation” does not include the operations of loading and/or unloading containers onto the vehicles. When the term“container treatment operation” is said to be performed on a container- loaded vehicle, it is understood that the operation can be performed on the container and/or its contents, as appropriate.

The term“customer”, as used herein, refers to a distributor, or a retailer such as a store, or a chain of stores.

The term“customized product(s)”, as used herein, refers to articles that have properties and/or features that are selected by a customer or consumer, and then (thereafter) the articles are produced with the customer or consumer’s choices of properties and/or features. Customized products are distinguishable from mass produced products (defined below). The properties or features can include, but are not limited to: the size or quantity of a product (but at least one other property or feature should be combined with size or quantity in order to qualify as a customized product and be distinguishable from a manufacturer’s usual mass production (e.g., volume or count) product offerings of a product; the version of a product (e.g.,“high intensity”,“for dry hair”,“for oily hair”, etc.); SKU number; the decoration, label, or image on a product, container, or package; name to be placed on the product, container, or package, which can be the name of the product and/or user (e.g.,“Dad’s laundry”, person’s given name selected from a list of common given names, etc.); the color of the product; and for fluent products any of the foregoing as applicable, as well as the formulation, scent, container type, container shape, color of the container, decoration on the container, and closure and/or dispenser type. The customer or consumer can also be provided with the choice to have the product be free of certain properties or features (e.g., no scent, no bleach, etc.) The properties and/or features can be selected from a pre-defined (limited) number of options (that is, from a pick list) provided by the manufacturer. Alternatively, the customer or consumer can be provided with the ability to select properties and/or features from a substantially unlimited number of possible options (to create personalized products, defined below). The term“customized product(s)” includes both non-personalized products and personalized products. In some cases, it may be desirable to exclude one of more of the foregoing properties or features when referring to“customized products”.

The term“decoration”, as used herein, refers to a visual, tactile, or olfactory effect applied by means of material deposition that is applied directly, or transferred to an article, or by transforming a property of an article, or combinations thereof. Examples of a material deposition that is applied directly to an article include, but are not limited to applying a label to an article (labelling), and/or printing and/or spray-coating at least a portion of the article or on a component of an article. An example of transforming a property of an article without transferring a material to the surface of the article is imparting an image on the surface of an article by a laser. The term“decorating”, as used herein, refers to the act of applying a decoration.

The term“different finished products”, as used herein with respect to fluent products, includes, but is not limited to: differing in container volume, container shape, container size, contained material volume or mass, contained ingredients, contained fluent product composition, container or closure appearance, closure type, container composition, closure composition, or other finished product attribute. The“appearance” of a container (and a closure) refers to its color, and any decoration thereon including any label or label contents thereon. The term“different finished products”, as used herein with respect to assembled products, includes, but is not limited to: differing in appearance; the presence or absence of a feature (e.g., personalization) or in the presence or absence of a component (e.g., whether the product is provided with an optional component); differing in the components comprising the product (e.g., one product may have components A, B, and C, and another product may have components A, B, and C’; or A, B, and D); or, other finished product attribute. When the finished products are described as differing from each other in one of more of the foregoing properties, it is meant to include those differences other than minor differences that are the result of variations within manufacturing tolerances.

The term“different fluent products”, as used herein, means differing in at least one property such as: state (e.g., liquid, solid, or non-headspace gas), differing amounts of one or more states of matter in the fluent products, differences in ingredients, differing amounts of one or more ingredients in the fluent products, observable properties (as perceived or measured by an observer such as color, scent, viscosity), particle size of any solid particles, and other properties. When the fluent products are described as differing from each other in one or more of the foregoing properties, it is meant to include those differences other than minor differences that are the result of variations within manufacturing tolerances. With respect to differences between two different fluent products based on their respective ingredient(s), it means when one of the two fluent products comprises an ingredient that is absent from the other fluent product. With respect to differing amounts of at least one same ingredient in two different fluent products, it means when the two different fluent products each contain the at least one same ingredient with a minimum or greater difference based on weight, as determined by one or both of the following methods. Both methods rely on knowledge of the proportion of said same ingredient in each different formula as a weight percent of the total fluent product weight of the total amount fluent product(s) contained with each fluent product’s respective container associated with their respective finished product. Method 1 determines that two fluent products are different if the ratio of the weight percent of the same ingredient in the two fluent products is greater than or equal to about 1.1 (and, thus, greater than or equal to about 1.25) as determined by dividing the weight percent that is the greater of the two fluent products by the weight percent that is the lesser of the two fluent products. Method 2 applies to when the weight percent of the same ingredients are each present in each of the fluent materials is minimally equal to or greater than 2% (as expressed as a weight percent) and the difference of the weight percent of the same ingredient in the two fluent products is about equal or greater than 2%, or any integer % value up to and including 99%, as determined by subtracting the weight percent that is the greater of the two fluent products by the weight percent that is the lesser of the two fluent products. Different fluent products refer to the entirety of the weight sum of fluent product(s) contained within a finished product wherein the fluent product(s) may be contained within one or multiple fluent product-containing chambers. Non-headspace gas refers to pressurized gas of which examples include: propellant gas such as for aerosol products and pressurized gas for a sealed chamber to provide structural support or shape definition to a container.

The terms“disposed on” or“disposed thereon”, as used herein with reference to the articles on the vehicles (such as containers on container- loaded vehicles), means any of the following: held by, affixed to, or otherwise coupled to in a removable manner. When the articles (such as containers) are described as being disposed on the vehicles, the article(s) can be in any suitable orientation with respect to the vehicles including, but not limited to: on top of the vehicles, underneath the vehicles, adjacent to one or more of the sides of the vehicles, or (if there are more than one article disposed on a vehicle) any combinations thereof.

The term“fast cycle”, with respect to stations, refers to inspection stations, such as weighing stations, scanners (e.g., for scanning bar codes, QR codes, RFID codes, etc.), vision systems, metal detectors, and other types of stations in which the task performed at such stations are carried out in a minimal amount of time relative to at least some other unit operation stations. For example, in the case of some of fast cycle stations, the task may be performed at the station when the vehicle moves past the station without stopping at the station.

The term“finished product”, as used herein, refers to a product in its final form or condition for delivery to a customer or consumer. In the case of products that require assembly (assembled products), such products will be completely assembled and have any desired decorations thereon. Such finished assembled products may include any primary packaging in which the product is typically placed on a customer’s store shelf in a retail environment. In the case of fluent products, such products will be finished fluent products as defined below. The term“finished fluent product”, as used herein, comprises a container, the fluent material (or contents) therein, any decoration on the container, and the closure on the container. Finished fluent products may in part or whole be flowable or fluent.

The term“fluent product” (or“fluent material”), as used herein, refers to any of the following: liquid products, gels, slurries, flowable pastes, pourable solid products (including, but not limited to granular materials, powders, beads, and pods), and/or gaseous products (including, but not limited to those used in aerosols).

The term“infeed queue”, as used herein, refers to an area where vehicles wait for a unit operation station to become ready to receive the vehicles. The infeed queue can be expressed in terms of a number of vehicles that can be queued in this area. Different unit operation stations may either have the same or different infeed queue lengths. Therefore, the queue lengths of some unit operation stations may be shorter or longer than the queue lengths at other unit operation stations. The infeed queue can (if using the number of vehicles) range from 0 (if no vehicles are able to wait in front of a given vehicle), up to hundreds of vehicles. In some cases, the queue length may be between about 2-10 vehicles.

The term“inspection”, as used herein, may include any of the following: scanning; weighing; detecting the presence or orientation of an article (which may be a component of a product; or, in the case of fluent products, the article may be a container); detecting defects or faults, detecting wear and tear on equipment and/or vehicles; or, other types of inspection. Inspections may be performed by weighing stations, scanners (e.g., for scanning bar codes, QR codes, RFID codes, etc.), vision systems, metal detectors, and other types of stations or devices.

The term“intermixed”, as used herein to describe the system and method of production, refers to production that takes place in the same system during a period of time (e.g., simultaneously). The term“intermixed” production includes producing different finished products, or any parts or portions thereof, with the same system during a period of time. For example, an intermixed production may comprise producing in the same system product A and product B, which comprise different finished products. The products may be at the same stage of completion, or at different stages of completion at any given time during production. At any given time, the system may be producing products A and products B in any sequence and producing an output of such products in any sequence (e.g., ABA; ABBA; etc.). The intermixed production is not limited to producing two different finished products. The intermixed production can make any suitable number of different products (e.g., products A, B, C, D, etc.) from two different products up to a virtually unlimited number of different products in any sequence (e.g., products A, B, and C; or, products A, B, and G). Such different possible products, if personalized, could number as many as 10,000, or more up to 10 million, or more. The term“intermixed” production, thus, does not include: (1) manufacturing different finished products on different production/manufacturing lines (at either the same or at different manufacturing sites); or (2) making one product, product A, on a manufacturing line, and changing over the manufacturing line to stop production of product A to make product B (sequential change overs). Such sequential changeovers that do not comprise“intermixed” production are those where such changeovers occur no more often than at intervals greater than every few (e.g., 3) minutes.

The term“joined to” as used throughout this disclosure, encompasses configurations in which an element is directly secured to another element by affixing the element directly to the other element; configurations in which the element is indirectly secured to the other element by affixing the element to intermediate member(s) which in turn are affixed to the other element; and configurations in which one element is integral with another element, i.e., one element is essentially part of the other element.

The terms“mass production”,“mass produced”, and the like, as used herein, refer to an automated or semi-automated process in which at least hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of the same product are produced on a given day. As used in the definition of“mass production” and“mass produced”, the“same product” refers to multiple copies of a version of a product that is the same in all material aspects (size, shape, decoration, etc.), with the exception of any variations within manufacturing tolerances, serialization code, or expiration dates. Mass produced products have characteristics that are chosen by the manufacturer or producer of the products, rather than by that specific product’s customer or consumer. Typically, mass produced products are produced before a customer or consumer selects or places an order for the same.

The term“non-personalized customized products”, as used herein, refers to customized products that are not personalized products (as defined below). Thus, non-personalized customized products are those in which the properties and/or features can be selected from a pre-defined (limited) number of options (that is, from a pick list) provided by the manufacturer. The term“operation”, as used herein with respect to an activity that occurs at a unit operation station, includes transformations and inspections.

The term“packaging”, as used herein, means a structure or material that is at least partially disposed on or about a consumer product. “Primary packaging”, in the case of fluent products, for example, means the container in which the consumer product is in direct contact and includes its closure, pump, cap, or other peripheral items.“Primary packaging”, in the case of assembled products, for example, means the box, blister pack, or other package in direct contact with the consumer product in which the product is typically provided to place the product on a customer’ s store shelf in a retail environment.“Secondary packaging” means any additional materials that are associated with the primary packaging, such as, for example, a container such as a box or polymeric sleeve that at least partially surrounds, contains, or contacts the primary packaging.

The term“personalized products”, as used herein, refers to articles that are uniquely customized and have properties and/or features that are selected by a customer or consumer from a substantially unlimited number of possible options, and then (thereafter) the articles are produced with the customer or consumer’s choices of properties and/or features. Thus, personalized products are typically made (or partially made and then completed) after being selected by a customer or consumer. Some examples of properties and/or features of personalized products include, but are not limited to: for liquid products, the additive(s) added to the product where the customer or consumer is able to define the weight percentage of the additive(s) from any percentage from 0% (e.g., no dye) to less than 100%, with a virtually unlimited number of decimal places (but typically up to about 3 decimal places); the color of the product or a portion thereof selected from any combination of a full color gamut; a scent of a product selected by mixing scents in any desired amount and combinations; adding a decoration supplied by a customer or consumer (such as a picture supplied by a customer or consumer, matching a consumer’s wall paper, etc.); and, adding a customer’s or consumer’s text (e.g., name or other desired wording) to the article, container, package, or label. The customer or consumer’s picture may be provided in any suitable form including, but not limited to digitally. In some cases, it may be desirable to exclude one of more of the foregoing properties or features when referring to“personalized products”.

The term“plurality”, as used herein, means more than one. The phrase“preparing a product for distribution”, as used herein, means placing one or more products into groups and/or containers (e.g., secondary packaging and/or shipping containers) for shipment to a customer, a consumer, or a warehouse.

The term“products”, as used herein, means any type of product that is sold or provided to a consumer or customer across a variety of industries. The term“products” includes assembled products and fluent products. The following products can take any product form described herein or known in the art.

Non-limiting examples of consumer products include: baby care products (e.g. soaps, shampoos, and lotions); beauty care products for cleaning, treating, beautifying, and/or decorating human or animal hair (e.g. hair shampoos, hair conditioners, hair dyes, hair colorants, hair repair products, hair growth products, hair removal products, hair minimization products, etc.); beauty care products for cleaning, treating, beautifying, and/or decorating human or animal skin (e.g. soaps, body washes, body scrubs, facial cleansers, astringents, sunscreens, sun block lotions, lip balms, cosmetics, skin conditioners, cold creams, skin moisturizers, antiperspirants, deodorants, etc.); beauty care products for cleaning, treating, beautifying, and/or decorating human or animal nails (e.g. nail polishes, nail polish removers, etc.); grooming products for cleaning, treating, beautifying, and/or decorating human facial hair (e.g. shaving products, pre-shaving products, after shaving products, etc.); health care products for cleaning, treating, beautifying, and/or decorating human or animal oral cavities (e.g. toothpaste, mouthwash, breath freshening products, anti-plaque products, tooth whitening products, etc.); health care products for treating human and/or animal health conditions (e.g. medicines, medicaments, pharmaceuticals, vitamins, nutraceuticals, nutrient supplements (for calcium, fiber, etc.), cough treatment products, cold remedies, lozenges, treatments for respiratory and/or allergy conditions, pain relievers, sleep aids, gastrointestinal treatment products (for heartburn, upset stomach, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.), purified water, treated water, etc.); pet care products for feeding and/or caring for animals (e.g. pet food, pet vitamins, pet medicines, pet chews, pet treats, etc.); fabric care products for cleaning, conditioning, refreshing and/or treating fabrics, clothes and/or laundry (e.g. laundry detergents, fabric conditioners, fabric dyes, fabric bleaches, etc.); dish care products for home, commercial, and/or industrial use (e.g. dish soaps and rinse aids for hand-washing and/or machine washing); cleaning and/or deodorizing products for home, commercial, and/or industrial use (e.g. soft surface cleaners, hard surface cleaners, glass cleaners, ceramic tile cleaners, carpet cleaner, wood cleaners, multi-surface cleaners, surface disinfectants, kitchen cleaners, bath cleaners (e.g. sink, toilet, tub, and/or shower cleaners), appliance cleaning products, appliance treatment products, car cleaning products, car deodorizing products, air cleaners, air deodorizers, air disinfectants, etc.), and the like. If desired certain of these products including, but not limited to fabric care products, dish care products, and personal care products may include beads comprised of any suitable material for any suitable purpose.

Further examples of products include those that are intended to be used across additional areas of home, commercial, and/or industrial, building and/or grounds, construction and/or maintenance, including any of the following products: products for establishing, maintaining, modifying, treating, and/or improving lawns, gardens, and/or grounds (e.g. grass seeds, vegetable seeds, plant seeds, birdseed, other kinds of seeds, plant food, fertilizer, soil nutrients and/or soil conditions (e.g. nitrogen, phosphate, potash, lime, etc.), soil sterilants, herbicides, weed preventers, pesticides, pest repellents, insecticides, insect repellents, etc.); products for landscaping use (e.g. top soils, potting soils, general use soils, mulches, wood chips, tree bark nuggets, sands, natural stones and/or rocks (e.g. decorative stones, pea gravel, gravel, etc.) of all kinds, man-made compositions based on stones and rocks (e.g. paver bases, etc.)); products for starting and/or fueling fires in grills, fire pits, fireplaces, etc. (e.g. fire logs, fire starting nuggets, charcoal, lighter fluid, matches, etc.); lighting products (e.g. light bulbs and light tubes or all kinds including: incandescents, compact fluorescents, fluorescents, halogens, light emitting diodes, of all sizes, shapes, and uses); chemical products for construction, maintenance, remodeling, and/or decorating (e.g. concretes, cements, mortars, mix colorants, concrete curers/sealants, concrete protectants, grouts, blacktop sealants, crack filler/repair products, spackles, joint compounds, primers, paints, stains, topcoats, sealants, caulks, adhesives, epoxies, drain cleaning/declogging products, septic treatment products, etc.); chemical products (e.g. thinners, solvents, and strippers/removers including alcohols, mineral spirits, turpentines, linseed oils, etc.); water treatment products (e.g. water softening products such as salts, bacteriostats, fungicides, etc.); fasteners of all kinds (e.g. screws, bolts, nuts, washers, nails, staples, tacks, hangers, pins, pegs, rivets, clips, rings, and the like, for use with/in/on wood, metal, plastic, concrete, concrete, etc.); and the like.

Further examples of products include those that are intended to be used across the food and beverage industry, including any of the following products: foods such as basic ingredients (e.g. grains such as rice, wheat, corn, beans, and derivative ingredients made from any of these, as well as nuts, seeds, and legumes, etc.), cooking ingredients (e.g. sugar, spices such as salt and pepper, cooking oils, vinegars, tomato pastes, natural and artificial sweeteners, flavorings, seasonings, etc.), baking ingredients (e.g. baking powders, starches, shortenings, syrups, food colorings, fillings, gelatins, chocolate chips and other kinds of chips, frostings, sprinkles, toppings, etc.), dairy foods (e.g. creams, yogurts, sour creams, wheys, caseins, etc.), spreads (e.g. jams, jellies, etc.), sauces (e.g. barbecue sauces, salad dressings, tomato sauces, etc.), condiments (e.g. ketchups, mustards, relishes, mayonnaises, etc.), processed foods (noodles and pastas, dry cereals, cereal mixes, premade mixes, snack chips and snacks and snack mixes of all kinds, pretzels, crackers, cookies, candies, chocolates of all kinds, marshmallows, puddings, etc.); beverages such as water, milks, juices, flavored and/or carbonated beverages (e.g. soda), sports drinks, coffees, teas, spirits, alcoholic beverages (e.g. beer, wine, etc.), etc.; and ingredients for making or mixing into beverages (e.g. coffee beans, ground coffees, cocoas, tea leaves, dehydrated beverages, powders for making beverages, natural and artificial sweeteners, flavorings, etc.). Further, prepared foods, fruits, vegetables, soups, meats, pastas, microwavable and or frozen foods as well as produce, eggs, milk, and other fresh foods.

Further examples of products include those that are intended to be used across the medical industry, in the areas of medicines, medical devices, and medical treatment, including uses for receiving, containing, storing and/or dispensing, any of the following products, in any form known in the art: bodily fluids from humans and/or animals (e.g. amniotic fluid, aqueous humour, vitreous humour, bile, blood, blood plasma, blood serum, breast milk, cerebrospinal fluid, cerumen (earwax), chyle, chime, endolymph (and perilymph), ejaculate, runny feces, gastric acid, gastric juice, lymph, mucus (including nasal drainage and phlegm), pericardial fluid, peritoneal fluid, pleural fluid, pus, rheum, saliva, sebum (skin oil), semen, sputum, synovial fluid, tears, sweat, vaginal secretion, vomit, urine, etc.); fluids for intravenous therapy to human or animal bodies (e.g. volume expanders (e.g. crystalloids and colloids), blood-based products including blood substitutes, buffer solutions, liquid-based medications (which can include pharmaceuticals), parenteral nutritional formulas (e.g. for intravenous feeding, wherein such formulas can include salts, glucose, amino acids, lipids, supplements, nutrients, and/or vitamins); other medicinal fluids for administering to human or animal bodies (e.g. medicines, medicaments, nutrients, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, etc.) by any suitable method of administration (e.g. orally (in solid, liquid, or pill form), topically, intra-nasally, by inhalation, or rectally. Further examples of products include those that are intended to be used across any and all industries that use internal combustion engines (such as the transportation industry, the power equipment industry, the power generation industry, etc.), including vehicles and/or parts or products for vehicles such as cars, trucks, automobiles, boats, aircraft, etc., containers useful for receiving, containing, storing, and/or dispensing, any of the following fluent products, in any form known in the art: engine oil, engine oil additives, fuel additives, brake fluids, transmission fluids, engine coolants, power steering fluids, windshield wiper fluids, products for vehicle care (e.g. for body, tires, wheels, windows, trims, upholsteries, etc.), as well as other fluids configured to clean, penetrate, degrease, lubricate, and/or protect one or more parts of any and all kinds of engines, power equipment, and/or transportation vehicles.

The products described herein can also be non- fluent products (or assembled products) including, but not limited to in any of the following categories: Baby Care products, including disposable wearable absorbent articles, diapers, training pants, infant and toddler care wipes, etc. and the like; Beauty Care products including applicators for applying compositions to human or animal hair, skin, and/or nails, etc. and the like; Home Care products including wipes and scrubbers for all kinds of cleaning applications and the like; Family Care products including wet or dry bath tissue, facial tissue, disposable handkerchiefs, disposable towels, wipes, etc. and the like; Feminine Care products including catamenial pads, incontinence pads, interlabial pads, panty liners, pessaries, sanitary napkins, tampons, tampon applicators, wipes, etc. and the like; Health Care products including oral care products such as oral cleaning devices, dental floss, flossing devices, toothbrushes, etc. and the like; Pet Care products including grooming aids, pet training aids, pet devices, pet toys, etc. and the like; Portable Power products including electrochemical cells, batteries, battery current interrupters, battery testers, battery chargers, battery charge monitoring equipment, battery charge/discharge rate controlling equipment, “smart” battery electronics, flashlights, etc. and the like; Small Appliance Products including hair removal appliances (including, e.g. electric foil shavers for men and women, charging and/or cleaning stations, electric hair trimmers, electric beard trimmers, electric epilator devices, cleaning fluid cartridges, shaving conditioner cartridges, shaving foils, and cutter blocks); oral care appliances (including, e.g., electric toothbrushes with accumulator or battery, refill brush heads, interdental cleaners, tongue cleaners, charging stations, electric oral irrigators, and irrigator clip on jets); small electric household appliances (including, e.g., coffee makers, water kettles, hand blenders, hand mixers, food processors, steam cookers, juicers, citrus presses, toasters, coffee or meat grinders, vacuum pumps, irons, steam pressure stations for irons and in general non electric attachments therefore, hair care appliances (including, e.g., electric hair driers, hair stylers, hair curlers, hair straighteners, cordless gas heated styler/irons and gas cartridges therefore, and air filter attachments); personal diagnostic appliances (including, e.g., blood pressure monitors, ear thermometers, and lens filters therefore); clock appliances and watch appliances (including, e.g., alarm clocks, travel alarm clocks combined with radios, wall clocks, wristwatches, and pocket calculators), etc. and the like.

In some cases, the term“products” may be further specified as excluding any one or more of the products, or categories of products, listed above.

The term“propellable”, as used herein, means able to be propelled in any manner. Vehicles can be propellable, for example, by gravity (such as on a downward slope), or by a propulsive force which may be mechanical, electrical (e.g., electric motors), magnetic, or other form of propulsion.

The term“route”, as used herein, refers to an ordered list of unit operation stations for an article transporting vehicle to visit and operations to be completed at such unit operation stations in order to create finished products.

The term“semi-autonomous”, as used herein, refers to a process that has both automated operations and manual operations. For example, a production system may be automated with the exception of infeeding of materials (e.g., empty containers) and/or removing finished articles from the production line for packaging, one or both of which may be done manually.

The term“simultaneous”, as used herein, not only means something that starts at the (exact) same time, but also something that may not start and/or end at the exact same time, but which takes place during the same time frame. One or more of the following may be specified to occur simultaneously in the systems and methods described herein: the routing of vehicles; the delivery of different vehicles to unit operation stations; the carrying out of operations at the same or different unit operation stations; the process of (or any steps in the process of) creating a plurality of (the same or different) finished products; and, in the case of fluent products, placing fluent compositions in the same type of container or in different types of containers.

The term“stream of products”, as used herein, refers to a number of products produced one after another. The term“system”, as used herein, refers to a (single) network within which one or more article transporting vehicles can be routed to one or more unit operations using a common control system. In contrast, separate unconnected processing lines in the same building or facility, or in a different building or facility, would not be considered to comprise a system. Thus, two unconnected filling lines in the same building that are being operated to fill containers with different fluids would not be considered to comprise a system.

The term“trackless”, as used herein, refers to at least a portion of a workspace that is independent of a fixed-in-place path for vehicles. A trackless system is, thus, free of physical structures, such as rails, that guide vehicles.

The term“transformation”, as used herein, includes physical, chemical, and biological changes to an article. Examples of transformations include, but are not limited to: assembling components of a product (joining at least two components together), loading, dispensing, filling, mixing, capping, sealing, decorating, labelling, emptying, unloading, heating, cooling, pasteurizing, fermenting, sterilizing, wrapping, rotating or inverting, printing, cutting, separating, pausing to allow mechanical settling or mechanical separation or chemical reaction, or etching. The term“transformation” does not include inspection of an article.

The term“unique”, as used herein to modify the term“route”, means the number, type, or sequence of unit operation stations or operations completed at the unit operation stations differs from that of another article transporting vehicle. The term“unique” does not require that the number, type, or sequence of unit operation stations or operations completed at the unit operation stations differ from that of all article transporting vehicles.

The term“unit operation station”, as used herein, means a location where an article undergoes an operation which may be a transformation or an inspection. The types of transformations defined above may each be carried out at separate unit operation stations; or one or more transformations and/or inspections may be described as one operation that is carried out at a single unit operation station. In one non- limiting example of the latter for fluent products, the transformations of uncapping, filling, and capping could be carried out at a single filling/capping unit operation station.

The term“workspace”, as used herein, refers to the area in which the unit operation stations are located and the vehicles are routable. All percentages and ratios of compositions are calculated by weight of the total composition, unless otherwise indicated.

Systems and methods for simultaneously producing products using independently guided vehicles are disclosed.

The systems and methods can be used to produce any suitable type of product. Such products can comprise fluent products, assembled products, or any desired combinations thereof. Several non- limiting examples of systems and methods for producing fluent products and assembled products are provided below.

The systems and methods comprise a workspace, a plurality of vehicles, and a plurality of unit operation stations. The systems do not require that the vehicles be transported on a track (and is, thus,“trackless”). The entire workspace may be trackless. However, the entire workspace does not need to be trackless. It is desirable for at least a portion of the workspace within which at least some of the vehicles are independently routable to be trackless. At least some of the vehicles may be independently routable through the trackless portion(s) of the workspace to at least one unit operation station. It is also possible in some cases, for at least some of the vehicles may be routable along pre-defined paths within the workspace. In any case, one or more (or all) of the vehicles may be routable along paths within the workspace that are determined, at least in part,“on the fly” (or during the course of travel of the vehicle from a first point to a second point). The vehicles (or at least some of the same) may be controlled by a control system and/or a guidance system that provides some or all of the vehicles with substantially complete freedom of movement in a generally horizontal (X-Y) plane (such as along a generally planar workspace surface). The vehicles (or at least some of the same) may also be provided with freedom of movement in the vertical (or Z-direction) to the extent the workspace includes non-planar portions such as bumps, ramps, elevators, etc. to support the vehicles.

FIG. 1 shows one non-limiting embodiment of a system 10 for producing products using independently guided vehicles. FIG. 1 shows that the system 10 comprises a plurality of unit operation stations, such as 14, 16, 18, and 20 arranged in a workspace 12. The system also comprises a plurality of vehicles 24 that are propellable within the workspace 12. The workspace 12 can be located on a surface, such as a floor of a building or other structure or facility. Thus, it is not necessary for the unit operation stations and the independently guided vehicles to either be associated with a conventional manufacturing line, or to utilize a track for sending the vehicles to the unit operation stations.

The unit operation stations can be of any suitable type (as further described below), and in any suitable arrangement in the workspace. In FIG. 1, the unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, and 20 are arranged in parallel rows and columns (when viewed from above). The arrangement of unit operation stations in FIG. 1 can also be described as a grid which may resemble a layout of the streets of a city. The system can be defined by a Cartesian coordinate system having an X axis and a Y axis, and the X-Y plane corresponds to the surface (such as the floor) on which the vehicles 24 move around. The columns are spaced apart in the X-direction, and rows are spaced apart in the Y-direction. Although FIG. 1 shows an embodiment in which the unit operation stations of the same type (having the same number, such as 14) are each in a single column, the different types of unit operation stations can be in any suitable arrangement in which any type of unit operation station can be located in any column and row.

The vehicles 24, as shown in FIG. 1, may follow any suitable paths between unit operation stations. The paths each vehicle takes through the system may be designated generally by the letter P. When there are a plurality of vehicles, the paths that a first vehicle takes can be designated as a first path, Pl ; the path that a second vehicle takes can be designated as a second path, P2; etc. The paths each vehicle takes through the system can be of any suitable configuration. These paths are not limited to linear movements in only the X or the Y directions. Suitable configurations for the path P may comprise, linear portions, curvilinear portions, and any suitable combinations thereof in any direction in the coordinate system. The paths for the vehicles may be open (such that a vehicle travels from point“A” to a different point“B”), or closed (e.g., circular, race-track configured, etc.). Some of the vehicles may take the same path as other vehicles. As shown in FIG. 1, at least some the vehicles may take different paths from other vehicles. Some of the vehicles may take paths that cross paths that were taken by other vehicles. At any given time, there may be vehicles taking different paths through the system.

FIG. 2 shows a system with an alternative arrangement of unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, and 20. In the embodiment shown in FIG. 2, the same types of unit operation stations are grouped together. Any suitable number of unit operation stations (2, 3, 4, or more) may be grouped together such that they are closer to each other than to a different type of unit operation station. This may be advantageous in several situations. For example, it may be useful to group stations together so that raw material supplies can be centralized to common unit operation stations. In addition, it may be useful to group stations together that require special air handling or require isolation (such as enzymes).

FIG. 3 shows one example in which the unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, and 20 can be disposed in different planes in a vertical or Z-direction. Thus, at least one unit operation station can be disposed above or below another unit operation station. For example, one (or more) unit operation stations can rest on the floor, or on a stand. In some embodiments, another upper unit operation station can be hung from above, such as from the ceiling of the facility, or from a truss that either does, or does not, support the roof of the facility. In other cases, as shown in FIG. 3, the facility may have different levels so that there are multiple floors 76, 76A, and 76B, and the upper unit operation station may rest on the floor, or on a stand on an upper level of the facility. The upper unit operation stations may be located directly over the lower unit operation stations. However, the upper unit operation stations do not need to be directly above the lower unit operation stations. In some embodiments, the unit operation stations may be only partially vertically aligned. In other embodiments, the arrangement of the unit operation stations may be such that they have completely different X-Y positions at their different levels. FIG. 4 shows a portion of a system having different levels and an elevator 85 to transport articles therebetween.

The systems shown in these figures are non-limiting schematic examples of various ways that unit operations stations can be organized. The types of unit operation stations and arrangement of the same can be such that the system is capable of serving as either part of a manufacturing plant, or as an entire manufacturing plant. The system is able to route vehicles 24 from any unit operation station to any other unit operation station. In some embodiments, some or all of the vehicles 24 may be routed autonomously so that at least some of the vehicles (producing the same types of products) sequentially follow the same or similar paths between unit operation stations. In other embodiments, such as when long production runs are needed, the paths for producing one or more types of products may be in parallel, such that they resemble multi-lane highways. Both are shown in FIG. 1.

The vehicles 24 (or at least some of the vehicles) may be independently guided and independently propelled. The vehicles 24 may be automated guided vehicles (“AGV’s”). The vehicles (or at least some of the same) will have on-vehicle controllers. The vehicles 24 (or at least some of the same) may be provided with position detectors so that the vehicles do not run into each other.

The vehicles 24 are propelled between different locations in the system (such as between unit operation stations) by individual propulsion mechanisms on the vehicles. The vehicles can be any suitable type of vehicle that is capable of transporting objects. Suitable types of vehicles include, but are not limited to wheeled vehicles; drones (such as those having propellers for flying about in a space (including while making elevation changes) and having holders for holding objects); and, other types of vehicles. The system may comprise one or more of any of such types of vehicles. In some embodiments, the vehicles in use in the system can all be the same type of vehicle. In other cases, any suitable combinations of different types of vehicles can be used at a given time.

One embodiment of a vehicle 24 is shown in FIG. 5. The vehicle 24 shown in FIG. 5 comprises a body 26 and a plurality of wheels 30 joined to the body. The body 26 can be any suitable structure having a platform 28 on which articles, such as a container 38, may rest, directly or indirectly, when the articles are being conveyed. The platform 28 may be located on the top surface of the body 26 of the vehicle 24. The platform 28 can be of any suitable configuration. The different vehicles 24 within the system can have any suitable different sizes and types of platforms, and any different sizes, numbers, and type of wheels.

The vehicles 24 (or at least some vehicles) may have platforms 28 that are sized and configured to carry individual articles, such as a single container (e.g., bottle). Other vehicles 24 can have platforms 28 that are sized and configured to carry larger items, such as a box or case of partially or completely empty bottles, such as for in-case filling; or items such as raw materials or tools. The system is, thus, more flexible than a track system, since track systems can be limited in the size and/or weight of loaded vehicles that can fit on the track and/or be supported by the track.

The vehicles 24 can comprise any suitable number of wheels 30. For example, in some cases, a vehicle 24 may have two wheels and a caster wheel to enable simple movement and rotation. In other cases, the vehicle 24 may have four wheels 30 which are configured and/or joined to the vehicle 24 in a manner that allows for steering of the vehicle. In some cases, the arrangement and type of wheels may permit movement of the vehicle in different directions. For example, omni wheels have small discs around their circumference which are perpendicular to the turning direction. Omni wheels may grip in only one direction, and slip freely in other directions. In the embodiment shown in FIG. 5, the vehicle 24 has four omni wheels 30 joined thereto (the fourth wheel is hidden due to the angle of the body 26 of the vehicle). The omni wheels 30 are arranged so that there are two pairs of co-axial wheels. The axes of the different pairs of wheels intersect at a perpendicular angle in the central region of the vehicle. This omni wheel arrangement allows the vehicle 24 to travel in any direction, and provides the vehicle 24 with a zero turning radius.

The propulsion mechanism can be located within the body 26 of the vehicle 24, or outside the body of the vehicle, or partially within the body of the vehicle and partially outside the body of the vehicle. When the propulsion mechanism can be located within the body 26 of the vehicle 24, it may be located below the top surface of the body 26 of the vehicle. The vehicles 24 can be propellable, for example, by gravity (such as on a downward slope), or by a propulsive force which may be mechanical, electrical (e.g., electric motors), magnetic, or other form of propulsion. The electric motors can be powered by a battery or a capacitor. The vehicles 24 may optionally have a monitor thereon that monitors the charge remaining on the battery or capacitor. If desired, a control system can direct the vehicle 24 to drive to a re-charge station when the remaining charge is at a low level. Some non-limiting examples of the use of magnetic forces for propulsion include to move the vehicles short distances, such as for docking purposes; or, in the form of a linear synchronous motor system having magnetic coils positioned beneath a trackless surface on top of which the vehicles 24 are propellable that work in combination with magnets positioned on or in the vehicles 24.

The vehicles 24 may all be movable independently around the workspace 12, but it is not necessary that all of the vehicles 24 are independently movable around the workspace. For example, when multiple vehicles 24 are traveling along the same path, it may be desirable to connect vehicles together to form a train of vehicles as shown in FIG. 6E. This may be desirable when producing similar products such as for mass production. Any suitable number of vehicles, such as two, three, four, etc., up to 100, or more vehicles, can be connected together. The vehicles 24 can be connected by a coupler that allows movement of the cars to pivot in the lateral direction. In such cases, there are a number of options for propelling the vehicles in the train. The lead vehicle will typically be powered, but the other vehicles need not be. Any of the other vehicles may or may not be powered. For example, one or more of the trailing vehicles may not be powered. When not powered, the trailing vehicles can be of the same type of the lead vehicle, but with their motors deactivated. In other cases, the trailing vehicles can be simplified vehicles which do not have a motor and/or controls. Connecting the vehicles in such a manner may reduce vehicle traffic management complexity.

The vehicles 24 can be provided with various optional features. For example, since the vehicles 24 have an on-board power source, they can also be provided with a movable payload platform 28 that can be raised and lowered. The movable payload platform 28 may be powered by the same on-board power source that powers the propulsion system, or by a different on board power source. The movable payload platform 28 can be used to bring the article on the vehicle 24 to a desired elevation, if necessary, at one or more unit operation stations.

The position of the vehicles 24 can be determined by any suitable vehicle position locating system. Various different types of vehicle position locating systems can be used alone, or in any suitable combination.

One type of vehicle position locating system is an indoor positioning system (IPS ). An indoor positioning system is capable of locating objects or people inside a building using radio waves (e.g , BLUETOOTH® wireless short-range communications technology), magnetic fields, acoustic (e.g., ultrasonic) signals, or other sensory information collected by stationary or mobile devices. Suitable indoor positioning systems and sensor networks are available from Kinexon Industries GmbH of Munich, Germany, and DecaWave, Ltd. of Dublin, Ireland. Such an indoor positioning system can be used as a“coarse” adjustment system to bring vehicles adjacent to, or into proximity with their destination (such as within one inch (2.5 cm)), such as at a unit operation station. This can he used in conjunction with a fine adjustment mechanism such as: a mechanical device (such as shown in FIGS. 7, 8A and SB); camera(s) (such as shown in FIG. 8C); magnetic (used in conjunction with a metal strip such as shown in FIG. 8D); or other mechanism that is able to bring the vehicle 24 to the precise location that it needs to be relative to the unit operation stations (such as under a nozzle) for the unit operation station to perform the intended unit operation on the article on the vehicle 24.

Another type of vehicle position locating system is a camera system. A camera system can use one or more overhead cameras and/or cameras in other locations that are capable of identifying at least one feature on the vehicles. In some cases, the cameras may be of a sufficient number, and in locations so that they cover the entire workspace. The cameras can be high resolution cameras. The cameras may, optionally, be color cameras (versus those that are only able to capture black and white images). The cameras can comprise processors, or be in communication with processors that are able to identify long term stationary objects or “background areas” in the workspace. Such background areas may include the floor, building supports, unit operation stations, and other fixed objects. The background areas can be manually input to the cameras’ processors; or, the cameras’ processors can leam the background areas (such as by identifying areas that are never occupied by vehicles over a period of time). If there are blind spots in the workspace, they can be configured as zones in which the vehicles 24 are not permitted to travel. The camera’s processors can populate a map with the positions and orientations of each vehicle, as well as with zones in which the vehicles are not permitted to travel. A space or area can be allocated to each vehicle in which the vehicle is free to travel. It may be desired to control the lighting in facilities where a camera vehicle position locating system is used so that ambient light does not interfere with the cameras’ ability to detect features on the vehicles. In some cases, it may be desirable to have monochrome lighting, and for the cameras to have narrow band-pass filters to reduce the impact of ambient light.

The feature on the vehicles 24 that is detected by the cameras can comprise one or more of the following: a beacon; a 2D code; an LED display; a timed strobe light sequence and/or duration; or, motion tracking infrared reflective markers. Alternatively, a camera can be located on each of the vehicles 24, and the facility in which the system is located can be provided with a static beacon in the form or markers or lights.

The vehicles 24 can also be provided with a collision avoidance system. The collision avoidance system ensures that the vehicles 24 do not collide with objects, other vehicles, or people; or, if they do make contact with the same, they are moving slowly enough that they do not cause damage. The collision avoidance can be accomplished by shared position awareness. A position locating system as described above can establish the position of each vehicle. A control system directing movement of a vehicle may be provided with the positions of all other vehicles or other objects or people, as well as optionally additional information about expected future positions of all other vehicles. Given such information, a control system directing movement of a vehicle can limit the vehicle’s movements so as not to propel the vehicle into another vehicle, object, or person. The facility may also be provided with“no motion zones” so that the vehicles 24 are unable to enter places where humans are working in the facility. For instance, the system can comprise a workspace 12 that is segmented into zones, and a zone can be disabled when a human enters the same, so that all the vehicles in the disabled zone are stopped. This can be triggered by a device that is carried or worn by humans. Such a device which may be in the nature of a tool booth transponder may communicate with the control system to automatically cause the zones around the human to be disabled. In other embodiments, 3D vision systems can be used to identify humans, or other objects, that are not vehicles, and the vision systems can communicate to the vehicles to avoid such persons or objects.

The workspace 12 can be divided into zones. Zone controllers can be used to control the vehicles in the different zones in conjunction with the vehicle position locating system. The zone controllers can comprise any suitable type of controller including, but not limited to: PC’s, PLC’s, FPGA’s, and camera processors (in the case of a camera-based vehicle position locating system).

The zone controllers can maintain a map of their respective zones that shows the locations where objects and vehicles are located. The zone controllers can receive gross (that is, general) direction requests from the vehicles. The zone controllers can communicate positions to the vehicles. If using a system where fixed cameras determine vehicle positions, the vehicle needs to be told its current position by the zone controller. This may happen more than ten times per second. The zone controllers can allocate space ownership to the different vehicles 24 and communicate motion commands to the vehicles 24.

The vehicles 24 can be cleared to travel along a line from a given position at the time of space allocation to an endpoint, with a specified tolerance for deviation from the line. The zone controllers can ensure that the vehicles are not allocated to a space that is within a distance of foreign objects. The zone controllers can also ensure that the vehicles are not allocated to a space where they will run into other vehicles (whose footprints are known such as based upon a reading of their 2D codes). The vehicles 24 can travel as fast as their proportional-integral- derivative controller (PID) settings allow, and so that the vehicles will stop at the desired endpoints with minimal overshoot. A new space may be allocated before the vehicle 24 reaches the endpoint so that the motion of the vehicle 24 can be continuous. As discussed above,“fine” motion control can be used at docking stations located at the unit operation stations. The vehicles 24 can travel through several zones before they reach their destinations. The zone controllers can coordinate hand-offs to and from other zone controllers. This may include allocating space along the border between zones.

The system can be provided with various optional features. For example, in some embodiments, the zone controllers can prioritize travel for vehicles 24 with low battery levels.

In embodiments in which the system and method is used for producing fluent products, a container 38 can be provided on the vehicle 24. The vehicle 24 can be routed within the system to facilitate filling of the container 38 with fluent material and/or performing other operations on the container and/or its contents. The container 38 can define at least one opening 40 for receiving and dispensing fluent material. When it is said that the container has an opening 40, embodiments with multiple openings (such as multi-compartment containers with separate closures or a single closure, press-tab vent and dispenser containers, and the like) are also included. There can be multiple containers on a single vehicle, or on different vehicles.

When there is more than one container in the system 20, the containers 24 may be all of the same type or geometric form (that is, the containers are of the same size, shape, appearance, and have the same volume), or any of the containers may differ from the other in one or more of size, shape, appearance, or volume. When reference is made to the“shape” of a container, it is understood that this means the exterior shape of the container. When reference is made to the“volume” of a container, it is understood that this means the interior volume of the container. The multiple containers can be identified as first, second, third, etc. containers. In the system at any given time, more than two containers may differ and/or hold fluent materials that differ from other containers. In some embodiments, there may be 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, or more, different types of containers, or groups of different types of containers (that may differ from each other in container type and/or in the fluent materials contained therein) that are disposed in the system at any given time. (The same applies to different types of articles in the case of assembled products described below.)

A closure 42 can be joined to the container to close the opening 40 until it is desired to dispense the product from the container (that is, the closure“selectively seals” the opening). Closures include, but are not limited to: caps, such as snap caps, threaded- screw caps, caps comprising multiple parts like a hinge and top or a transition spout, drain-back caps, glued-on caps (such as those used on some laundry detergent containers with spouts), caps that serve metering functions like oral rinse caps, pumps or triggers, and aerosol nozzles. The closures have a shape, a size, and appearance. Similarly to the containers, the closures may all be of the same type, or any of the closures may differ from others in one or more of type, shape, size, or appearance. The multiple closures can be identified as first, second, third, etc. closures.

The different vehicles 24, as discussed above, may be the same or different in size and/or type. The vehicles 24 can further comprise a holder 32 for holding an article (such as container 38). The holder 32, as shown in FIGS. 6B, 6C, and 7, can be of any suitable type or configuration. The holders can comprise mechanical holders of any suitable size and configuration. In other embodiments, as described below with reference to FIG. 5, the vehicles 24 can comprise a unique holder that operates by vacuum. The different vehicles 24 in the system at any given time may have holders that are the same or different in size and/or type.

In one embodiment, as shown in FIG. 5, the container 38 can be releasably secured to the vehicle 24 by a vacuum holder via a vacuum port 44 on the platform 28 of the vehicle 24. In such an embodiment, when the container 38 is placed on the platform 28 of the vehicle 24, a vacuum can be drawn on the vacuum port 44 by drawing a vacuum on a primary port 46. When the container 38 is provided over the vacuum port 44 and a vacuum is drawn on the primary port 46, the vacuum can secure the container 38 to the vehicle 24. The primary port 46 can include a valve, such as a Schrader valve that selectively fluidically isolates the primary port 46 from the vacuum port 44 such that once a vacuum is drawn on the container 38, the valve prevents the vacuum from releasing until the valve is subsequently actuated.

In some embodiments, the top surface of the body 26 of the vehicle 24 can be formed of an elastomeric or other similar material that encourages an effective seal between the container 38 and the platform 28. Such a vehicle which comprises a vacuum holder is described in U.S. patent application Serial Nos. 15/698,686 and 15/698,693 filed on September 8, 2017.

It should be understood that although the platform 28 of the vehicle 24 is shown in the drawings as facing upward, this portion of the vehicle (which comprises a retaining surface for the container), and need not always be oriented upward. The retaining surface need not be on the top surface of the body, and the retaining surface can be oriented in any suitable direction, including downward (upside down) or sideways at any suitable stage of the processes described herein. (Of course, a container with fluent material therein and its opening unsealed, will typically not be conveyed in an upside down condition, but an empty container or a closed container, or a closure for a container, could be conveyed upside down or sideways.)

In some embodiments, a vehicle 24 with a vacuum holder may further comprise a gauge or sensor that measures the strength of the vacuum, for example in pressure units of psig or kPa, to ensure that the vacuum is of sufficient strength to secure the container. Target values may be placed upon the vacuum strength so that a reading which is outside those target values can be used to signal that the container 38 is not sufficiently secured to the vehicle 24. The vacuum holder may further comprise a communication means between the gauge or sensor that communicates with the system so that any container that is not sufficiently secured to its vehicle may be identified remotely and routed to an inspection and/or rejection station or to a vacuum station where the vacuum may be re-charged.

The containers can be any of a variety of configurations and can be used across a variety of industries to hold a variety of products. For example, any embodiment of containers, as described herein, may be used across the consumer products industry and the industrial products industry, wherein said containers contain a fluent product. The containers may be filled in one or multiple filling operations to contain, after partial or complete intended filling, a portion, or multiple ingredients of, or all ingredients of, a finished product.

The containers can be formed of any of a variety of suitable materials, such as, for example, a polymeric composition. The polymeric composition can be formed (e.g., molded into various articles such as containers, formed into one or more pieces of film that are joined together to form a container, or otherwise formed) into containers.

In some cases (such as to form bottles), the composition may be extrusion blow molded or injection molded. Typically, high density polyethylene (HDPE) is extrusion blow molded and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is injection stretch blow molded. A completely assembled container may comprise one or more elements which include, but are not limited to a container, a closure, a nozzle, a drain-back feature, and/or a handle.

Examples of containers that are formed from one or more pieces of film to form flexible containers, and methods of making the same, are described in the following U.S. Patent Publications and applications: US 2013/0292353; US 2013/0292415; US 2014/0033654; US 2015/0122840; US 2015/0125099; US 2015/0121810; US 2016/0325518; US 2017/0001782; and U.S. Patent Application Serial No. 15/466,901 (The Procter & Gamble Flexible Inflatable Container patent publications).

The vehicles 24 can be configured to accommodate certain types of articles (such as containers). As such, different vehicle types can be provided to allow for simultaneous routing of different types of articles. The vehicles 24 are also not limited to conveying the articles set forth above. In some cases, the vehicles 24 can be used for other purposes which may include, but are not limited to: delivering raw materials to a unit operation station; and delivering tools such as changeover tools and the like to various locations around the system. Examples of raw materials include, but are not limited to: raw materials in the form of a pallet or in a tank (such as a tank of fluid ingredients, which may utilize heavy payload vehicles as shown in FIGS. 6B and 6C, respectively), a hopper full of closures (caps), and flexible pouches (as shown being opened by an opening mechanism in FIG. 6D). An example of a vehicle used to carry a tool is the use of a vehicle to carry a tool that removes a roll of labels from a decoration unit operation station prior to replacing the same.

Referring again to FIG. 1, the vehicles 24 carry the articles to unit operation stations where an operation may be performed on the article. The operations can, and will often, be performed in a sequence (or, alternatively, in a non- sequential manner) relative to other articles that is different from the typical sequence in conventional manufacturing processes in which there is a step-by-step series of operations performed on a succession of articles. The system 10 is, thus, distinguishable from a typical conveyor system in which the articles being manufactured travel along a single conveyor and have steps in the manufacture performed successively from the upstream end of the conveyor to the downstream end.

These unit operation station(s) can be any of the types of unit operation stations described in the above definition of “unit operation stations” (and the definitions of “transformation” and“inspection” included therein). There can be any suitable number of unit operation stations. Generally, there will be two or more unit operation stations (e.g., 2, 3, 4, 5, ... up to 100, or more). The unit operation stations may be in any suitable arrangement

Unit operation stations can include, but are not limited to: loading articles onto vehicles; unloading articles or products from vehicles; filling (such as filling a container with one or more fluent products); capping; uncapping; inspecting; decorating; mixing; assembling (such as assembling components of an article); forming all or a portion of a container (e.g., forming a flexible container from film); bringing together components of a container; and/or components of a container closure; maintenance (that is, performing maintenance on vehicles, or other components of the system); shrink wrapping; weighing; and vacuum application or discharge. If desired, the function of any two or more unit operations can be combined at a single unit operation station (e.g., filling and capping). The unit operation stations can optionally further comprise one or more additional mechanisms (including, but not limited to sensors) that perform one or more additional operations that are suitable or necessary for carrying out the desired process. In addition, in some cases, it may be desired to exclude one or more of the foregoing types of unit operations and/or mechanisms. Operations at a given unit operation station may be carried out automatically by any suitable type of mechanism. Alternatively, any operation at a given unit operation station can be carried out manually. Any of these unit operation stations may be described as a unit operation station preceded by the particular operation performed (e.g., loading unit operation station).

As noted above, there can be a vacuum application station (or simply“vacuum station”) for drawing a vacuum to hold an article to a vacuum holder (such as a vacuum holder vehicle). There can also be a vacuum recharge station for drawing additional vacuum, if needed to account for any reduction in vacuum holding the article over time. In addition, there can be a vacuum discharge station for releasing the vacuum that is holding an article to a vehicle so that the article can be removed from the vehicle. Such a vacuum discharge station can be a separate station, or it can be a part of another station including, but not limited to a vacuum station.

FIG. 1 shows one non-limiting embodiment of an arrangement of unit operation stations. In one variation of the embodiment shown in FIG. 1, the unit operation stations can comprise a plurality of (container) loading stations 14, a plurality of combined filling/capping stations 16, a plurality of decorating stations 18, and a plurality of unloading stations 20 (e.g., collectively“the unit operation stations”). In this embodiment, each of the unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, 20 is located in rows and columns as described above. The vehicles 24 can be selectively routed among the unit operation stations to facilitate bottling of fluent material within a plurality of the containers 38 (and in other embodiments, to different types of unit operation stations in order to carry out the manufacture of assembly of assembled products).

When a vehicle 24 is empty (i.e., devoid of a container 38), the vehicle 24 can first be routed to one of the loading stations 14 where an empty container 38 is loaded onto the vehicle 24. The vehicle 24 can then transport the empty container 38 to one or more filling stations at which one or more portions of the fluent material are added to the container. The vehicle 24 can then transport the container 38 to a capping station. Alternatively, the vehicle 24 can route the empty container 38 to one of the filling/capping stations 16 where it is filled with fluent material and sealed with one of the closures 40. The vehicle 24 can then route the container 38 to one, or more, of the decoration stations 18 to have a decoration applied thereto, and can then route the container 38 to one of the unloading stations 20 where the filled container 38 can be removed from the vehicle 24 for loading into packaging.

It is to be appreciated that there can be significantly more vehicles 24 in the system than are illustrated in FIG. 1. There can also be significantly more vehicles 24 than unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, 20. Each of the vehicles 24 may be independently routable to facilitate simultaneous delivery of at least some of the containers 38 to different ones of the unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, 20. Multiple vehicles 24 can be queued in a defined approach runway while awaiting delivery to the desired unit operation station 14, 16, 18, 20. The vehicles en route will move to a position behind the last vehicle in the infeed queue. The system can optionally provide one or more vehicles 24 with the ability to“cut” in line in the infeed queue for higher priority vehicles. However, this optional feature may require additional spacing between unit operation stations.

This system 10 can allow for more efficient production of products than conventional conveyor systems, or track systems. As will be described in further detail below, the control system 62 can coordinate routing of each of the vehicles 24, as well as operation of each of the unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, 20 to efficiently and effectively fulfill an order of finished products. The control system is, thus, in communication with the vehicles 24, and the unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, 20. The coordination of the operation of these components can include, for example, vehicle identification, vehicle scheduling, vehicle speed (which can be varied in any suitable manner including speeding up, slowing down, and stopping a vehicle), vehicle direction (including changing direction to a different path, and reversing direction), collision avoidance, route selection, outage reporting, and the like.

Examples of several non-limiting types of unit operation stations will now be more fully described.

The container loading stations (or simply“loading stations”) 14 can be configured to facilitate loading of an empty container (e.g., 38) and/or a closure 42 therefor onto a vehicle 24 located at the container loading station 14. It is to be appreciated that the container loading station 14 can comprise any of a variety of automated and/or manual arrangements that facilitate loading of a container and/or a closure 42 onto a vehicle. Loading can be done manually, statically such as by a gravity feed chute with optional gate, or with a mechanical motion device. Suitable mechanical motion devices include, but are not limited to: independently actuatable automatic arms, pneumatic arms, robots, transfer wheels, and other mechanical moving elements. In one embodiment, the container loading stations 14 can each include a robotic arm (not shown) that retrieves the container 38 and/or a closure from a storage area and places the container 38 and/or a closure on the vehicle 24. To facilitate grasping of the containers 38 and/or closures, each robotic arm can have a robotic mandible, a suction end, or any of a variety of suitable additional or alternative arrangements that enable grasping of the containers 38 and/or closures. Once the container 38 and/or a closure are in place on the vehicle 24, if the vacuum holder vehicle shown in FIG. 5 is used, a vacuum line (not shown) can be inserted either manually or automatically in the primary port 46 to draw a vacuum on the vacuum port 44 thereby temporarily securing the container 38 and/or a closure to the vehicle 24. The vacuum line can then be removed from the primary port 46, thereby allowing the associated valve (not shown) to close to maintain the vacuum on the container 38 and/or a closure. A vacuum station such as that described above may also be remote from the loading and/or unloading station(s) for the purpose of re-charging the vacuum at other times.

A filling unit operation station is used to dispense fluent material into at least some of the containers. A filling unit operation station is not required to fill the containers to any particular level (such as to a“full” level). The filling unit operation station can dispense any suitable fluent material into the container. In some cases, the filling unit operation station can dispense a composition into the container that comprises all of the ingredients of the finished product. Alternatively, the filling unit operation station can dispense a base composition into the container, and the container can be sent to one or more other filling unit operation stations to have other ingredients (or several other ingredients in the form of pre-mix additions) added thereto in order to form a finished product. In other cases, the separate ingredients and/or pre mix additions can be initially added to the container at a filling unit operation station, and then the remainder of the ingredients or base composition may be subsequently added at other filling unit operation stations. Thus, some filling unit operation stations may only dispense portions of the finished product composition. Such portions include, but are not limited to: water, silicone (such as for use as a conditioning agent, or the like), dyes, perfumes, perfume microcapsules, enzymes, flavors, bleach, anti-foam agents, surfactants, structurants, stabilizers such as solvents, anti-microbials, aesthetic enhancers such as opacifiers, mica and the like, etc. If the ingredients are separately added, they can be added in any suitable order, and mixed together at any suitable unit operation station.

In addition, although some filling unit operation stations may only be configured to dispense one type of fluent material, the filling unit operation stations are not limited to dispensing only one type of fluent material (e.g., one color of dye, etc.). In some cases, one or more of the filling unit operation stations can be configured to dispense different ingredients (such as through a different fluent material supply and nozzle). For example, the same filling unit operation station could dispense a green finished composition, a blue finished composition, and a red finished composition; or, it could dispense a green dye, a blue dye, and a red dye. In such cases, at least two different types of containers (e.g., a first, a second, a third, etc. container) may receive one or more (or all) of the ingredients for their finished compositions from the same fluent material dispensing unit operation station, or from the same type of fluent material dispensing unit operation station.

A filling unit operation station may, therefore, comprise a plurality of independently controllable nozzles for dispensing fluent material into the containers. Such independently controllable nozzles may take a number of different forms. In some cases, a single nozzle can be used to dispense more than one different fluent material. In other cases, filling unit operation station may comprise a bank of nozzles which comprises a plurality of nozzles, each of which may be configured to dispense the same or different fluent materials. In still other cases, one or more nozzles can be movable upward and downward to accommodate containers of different heights.

Mixing unit operation stations can comprise any suitable type of mixing device. Suitable types of mixing devices include, but are not limited to: mixers having a static geometry such as static mixers, orifice mixers, orifice and plate mixers, turbulent or laminar mixing in pipe, injection/jet mixing in pipe, liquid whistle cavitation, dynamic mixers such as mills/agitators, in-bottle mixing devices and in- nozzle mixing devices, and other in situ mixing devices.

Suitable types of in situ mixing methods are described in PCT Patent Application Serial No. CN2017/087537 (P&G Case AA 1227). This patent application describes methods for in situ mixing of two or more different liquid compositions by employing a dynamic flow profile characterized by a ramping-up section and/or a ramping-down section. In this in situ liquid mixing method, i.e., two or more liquid raw materials are mixed directly inside a container (e.g., a bottle, a pouch or the like) that is designated for housing a finished liquid consumer product during shipping and commercialization of such product, or even during usage after such product has been sold. This mixing method employs a dynamic filling profile for filling the container, which can help to reduce splashing, rebounding, and associated negative effects (such as aeration) inside the container caused by high-speed filling, and/or to improve thoroughness of the mixing and to ensure that the finished liquid consumer product so formed has satisfactory homogeneity and stability. More importantly, with the splashing and rebounding under control, it is possible to push the filling speed even higher, thereby significantly reducing the filling time and improving the system throughput. In one aspect, the method of filling a container with liquid compositions includes the steps of: (A) providing a container that has an opening, wherein the total volume of the container ranges from about 100 ml to about 10 liters; (B) providing a first liquid feed composition and a second liquid feed composition that is different from the first liquid feed composition; (C) partially filling the container with the first liquid feed composition to from about 0.01% to about 50% of the total volume of the container; and (D) subsequently, filling the remaining volume of the container, or a portion thereof, with the second liquid feed composition, while the second liquid feed composition is filled through the top opening into the container by one or more liquid nozzles, while such one or more liquid nozzles are arranged to generate one or more liquid flows characterized by a dynamic flow profile, which includes an increasing flow rate at the beginning of step (D) and/or a decreasing flow rate at the end of step (D) in combination with a peak flow rate during the middle of step (D).

Other suitable types of methods for in situ mixing of two or more different liquid compositions in a container are described in PCT Patent Application Serial No. CN2017/087538 (P&G Case AA 1228). This patent application describes a method of employing one or more liquid influxes that are offset by 1-50° from a longitudinal axis of the container. In this in situ liquid mixing method, two or more liquid raw materials are mixed directly inside a container (e.g., a bottle, a pouch or the like) that is designated for housing a finished liquid consumer product during shipping and commercialization of such product, or even during usage after such product has been sold. This method employs one or more liquid influxes for filling the container that are not aligned with the longitudinal axis of the container, but are offset from such longitudinal axis by a sufficiently large offset angle (a), e.g., from about 1° to about 50°. Such offset or angled liquid influxes function to increase the impact of available kinetic energy on the mixing result and in turn improve homogeneity and stability of the finished liquid consumer product so formed. In one aspect, this method of filling a container with liquid compositions, comprises the steps of: providing a container that has an opening with a centroid, a supporting plane, and a longitudinal axis that extends through the centroid of the opening and is perpendicular to such supporting plane, while the total volume of the container ranges from 10 ml to 10 liters; (B) providing a first liquid feed composition and a second liquid feed composition that is different from the first liquid feed composition; (C) partially filling the container with the first liquid feed composition to from about 0.01 % to about 50% of the total volume of such container; and (D) subsequently, filling the remaining volume of the container, or a portion thereof, with the second liquid feed composition, while during step (D), the second liquid feed composition is filled through the opening into the container by one or more liquid nozzles that are positioned immediately above the opening or inserted into the opening, and while such one or more liquid nozzles are arranged to generate one or more liquid influxes that are offset from the longitudinal axis of the container by an offset angle (a) ranging from about 1° to about 50°.

Alternatively, instead of providing a separate mixing unit operation station (or in addition to a mixing unit operation station), the system, or a component thereof, can be provided with a feature or modification that contributes to the mixing or agitation of the article being transported. This is in contrast to what is typically desirable when assembling sensitive components, such as electronic components. However, it may be of great interest when making fluent products. A non-limiting number of features or modifications that can provide such agitation are possible. For example, in certain cases, the vehicle 24 may have an agitating mechanism joined thereto to hold and agitate the article (such as a fluent product in a container) being transported. The agitating mechanism can be of a type that is configured to: shake the article, invert the article, and/or rotate the article. In other cases, the agitating mechanism can be provided on the wheels 30 of the vehicle 24, such as providing a vehicle with one or more eccentric wheels. In still other cases, the feature or modification can be provided on the surface that the vehicle traverses. That is, the shape of at least a portion of the surface of the workspace 12 can provide agitation. For example, as shown in FIG. 1, a portion 58 of the floor of the workspace 12 can be made sufficiently uneven or bumpy so that the article being transported is agitated. Alternatively, or additionally, as shown in FIG. 1 , a portion 60 of the floor of the workspace 12 can be bowl-shaped to tilt the payload of the vehicle 24 in order to provide the desired agitation. In still other cases, the movement of the vehicle 24 as it traverses from one point to another can provide agitation. For example, as shown in FIG. 1, in the bowl-shaped portion 60, the vehicle 24 can spin or move in a circle (or in some other figure) along at least a portion of its path to agitate the payload. In other cases, the vehicle 24 may move rapidly side- to-side as it is moving along its path, in order to provide the desired agitation of the payload.

The combined filling/capping stations 16 can be configured to dispense fluent material into containers 38 and to apply a closure to the containers 38 once they are filled. One example combined filling/capping station 16 is illustrated in FIG. 7 and is shown to include a filling portion 92 and a capping portion 94. The filling portion 92 can include a filler arm 96 which can move vertically between a retracted position (FIG. 7) and an extended position (not shown). The capping portion 94 can include a capping arm 98 that can move vertically between a retracted position (not shown) and a capping position (right side of FIG. 7). To begin filling the container 38, the vehicle 24 can be routed to the filling portion 92 with the empty container 38 located beneath the filler arm 96. FIG. 7 shows a fine adjustment mechanism 80 in the form of a pair of mechanical arms associated with both the filling portion 92 and the capping portion 94 of the filling/capping station. These fine adjustment mechanisms 80 are able to bring the vehicle 24 to the precise location that it needs to be relative to the unit operation stations (such as under a nozzle) for the unit operation station to perform the intended unit operation on the article on the vehicle 24. The filler arm 96 can then be moved from the retracted position to the extended position and into engagement with the opening 40 of the container 38. The filler arm 96 can then dispense fluent material into the container 38. Once the fluent material has been dispensed, the filler arm 96 can stop dispensing fluid and can move back to the retracted position. The vehicle 24 can then be routed to the capping portion 94 with the closure 42 positioned beneath the capping arm 98. The capping arm 98 can then extend to the closure 42, grasp the closure 42, and then return to the retracted position. The vehicle 24 can then move the opening 40 of the container 38 beneath the capping arm 98. The capping arm 98 can move to the capping position and can screw, or otherwise attach, the closure 42 to the container 38. The closure 42 may be removable or openable by a consumer to access the contents.

In some embodiments, the closure 42 may be transported on the container 38. In such embodiments, when the vehicle 24 arrives at the filling/capping station 16, the vehicle 24 can first be routed to the capping portion 94. The capping arm 98 can remove the closure 42 from the container 38 and can move to the retracted position while holding the closure 42. The vehicle 24 can then be routed to the filling portion 92 for filling of the container 38 with fluid. Once the container is filled, the vehicle 24 can return to the capping station 94 where the capping arm 98 secures to the closure 42 to the container 38. In other embodiments, the closure 42 can be transported to the filling/capping station 16 on the same vehicle as the container 38, but not on the container (for example, on the same vehicle but adjacent to the container). In other embodiments, the closure 42 can be transported to the filling/capping station 16 on a different vehicle (e.g., a separate vehicle) from the vehicle transporting the container 38. When the closure 42 is transported on a vehicle 24, it can be held by vacuum (or in some other suitable manner) and sent to any of the finished product unit operation stations, if desired. For example, it may be desirable to send the closure 42 to a decoration station for decorating the closure. In yet other embodiments, the closure 42 might not be transported with the empty container 38, but instead can be provided to the container 38 upon its arrival at the capping portion 94 (i.e., after the container 38 is filled with fluent material). It is to be appreciated that the filling/capping stations 16 can include any of a variety of additional or alternative automated and/or manual arrangements that facilitate filling and capping of a container.

The decoration stations 18 can be configured to facilitate labelling, printing, spray coating (i.e., spray-painting), or otherwise decorating the containers 38 (and optionally also doing the same to their closures). In one embodiment, at least one of the decoration stations 18 can include a printer (not shown) that prints labels for application to the containers 38. In such an embodiment, the printer can print the label on a sticker that is on a backing substrate. A spooling assembly (not shown) can receive the sticker and the backing substrate. When the vehicle 24 carrying the container 38 passes the spooling assembly, the movement of the container 38 past the spooling assembly can facilitate application of the sticker to the container 38.

In other embodiments, the printer can print ink onto a transfer component, and an adhesive can be applied onto the ink to form a composite structure. The ink and adhesive composite structure can then be transferred from the transfer component onto an article (such as a product, or portion thereof, or a container) to form a label or decoration (without using a separate sticker). The transfer component may be flexible and may comprise a flexible sheet material capable of conforming to the article over a variety of concave and convex surface features. In some cases, the adhesive may be separate from the ink and intermediate the ink and the article. In other cases, the adhesive may be integral with the ink. Additionally, the transfer component may be treated with a release coating that may be intermediate the transfer component and the ink and adhesive composite. Suitable transfer processes are described in the following patent applications belonging to The Procter & Gamble Company: US 2017/0182756 Al; US 2017/0182704 Al; US 2017/0182513 Al; US 2017/0182705 Al; and, US 2017/0183124 Al.

In other embodiments the printer can print ink onto a sleeve or wrap such as a shrink- sleeve that encompasses the perimeter of the container or article. The sleeve may be then made to conform at least in part to the container or article, such as by heating the shrink-sleeve.

Such arrangements can facilitate “on-demand” decorating whereby different decorations (such as labels) can be printed for the different types of articles and/or containers 38 (and/or fluids in such containers) that are being carried by the vehicles 24. These labels can include various types of decorations and product information such as, for example, characters, graphics, branding, ingredients, SKU (stock keeping unit) information, or other visual elements for when the article (e.g., a container 38) is displayed for sale. If desired, the article (e.g., containers 38) can be customized, or even be personalized for and/or in response to orders from retailers or from individual consumers.

The unloading stations 20 can be configured to facilitate removal of the articles (such as filled containers 38) from the vehicles 24. In one embodiment, each of the unloading stations 20 can include a robotic arm (not shown) that retrieves the article (e.g., container 38) from each vehicle 24 for loading into packaging (e.g., a store display or a shipping container). To facilitate grasping of the articles (such as filled containers 38), the robotic arm can have a robotic mandible, a suction end, or any of a variety of suitable additional or alternative arrangements that enable grasping of the container 38. In certain cases, at least a portion or component of the vehicle 24 may be unloaded concurrent with the article/container. For example, the vehicle may comprise a puck to secure the article/container to the vehicle 24, which puck is removable and replaceable.

Once the article (e.g., container 38) is removed from the vehicle 24, the vehicle 24 can be routed back to a loading station 14 to receive another article (such as an empty container 38) for filling (or component of an article for making an assembled product). It is to be appreciated that the unloading station 20 can include any of a variety of additional or alternative automated and/or manual arrangements that facilitate unloading of a container finished product into packaging.

In some embodiments, the finished products (e.g., filled containers 38) can be placed into packaging that is designed to present the finished products for sale at a merchant. In such packaging, the finished products (e.g., finished fluent products) can be offered for sale individually or packaged with one or more other products, which together form an article of commerce. The finished products can be offered for sale as a primary package with or without a secondary package. The finished products can be configured to be displayed for sale while lying down or standing up on a store shelf, while presented in a merchandising display, while hanging on a display hanger, or while loaded into a display rack or a vending machine. When the finished products comprise containers 38 containing fluent product(s), they can be configured with a structure that allows them to be displayed in any of these ways, or in any other way known in the art, as intended, without failure. In some embodiments, the unloading stations 20 can facilitate packaging (“bundling”) of different types of products within the same packaging without requiring manual handling of the articles as is oftentimes required in conventional operations.

The system can comprise any suitable number and/or type of inspection station(s). For example, the system can include a first scanner and a second scanner that are each configured to scan passing articles (e.g., containers 38). The scanners can be in any suitable location in the system. For example, the first scanner can be located between one of the loading stations 16 and the filling/capping station 16 and can scan each passing vehicle 24 to determine if the container 38 is present. The second scanner can be located between the decoration stations 18 and the unloading stations 20 and can scan each passing vehicle 24 to determine whether the article (e.g., container 38) disposed thereon is ready for packaging by the unloading stations 20.

If the article (e.g., container 38) is not ready for packaging by one of the unloading stations (such as due to a defect in the contents and/or the container), the article can be unloaded at the unloading station of its destination. In other cases, the vehicle with the article thereon can be sent to an alternative unloading station. At the destination or alternative unloading station, one or more of the following actions can take place: the defect in the article (such as in the container and/or its contents) can be remedied; the container can be emptied and recycled; and/or the article (e.g., container and/or its contents) can be disposed of. The article is unloaded from the unloading station, and the vehicle becomes ready for a new route assignment. The first and second scanners can be any of a variety of scanners for obtaining information from the vehicles 24 and/or the articles (e.g., containers 38) such as, for example, an infrared scanner. The first and second scanners can also be configured to facilitate reading of a variety of data from the container 38 such as QR codes, UPC barcodes, or RFID tags, for example.

It is to be appreciated that the system 10 can facilitate dispensing different types of fluent materials into various types of different containers at the same time. (Of course, the start time and finish time of dispensing into the different containers may, but need not, coincide exactly. The dispensing into the different containers may only at least partially overlap in time.) If the system 10 is being used to make products other than fluent products, the system 10 can be used to make customized products intermixed with mass produced products at the same time. Similarly to fluent products, the start and finish time of producing and/or assembling such products may, but need not, coincide exactly. The start and finish time may only at least partially overlap in time.

In addition, in the case of fluent products, one or more containers may not be filled with fluent material that is used to make a finished product. For example, one or more containers may be used to receive fluent material that is cleaned or flushed from one or more nozzles at a filling unit operation station, and this fluent material can thereafter be disposed of or recycled.

As will be described in more detail below, the particular type of article (e.g., container types and fluent materials) provided for each vehicle 24 can be selected by the control system 62 (FIG. 9) to fulfill a particular production schedule, and each vehicle 24 can be independently and simultaneously routed along a unique route among the unit operation stations (such as 14, 16, 18, 20) to facilitate making a particular product (e.g., loading and filling of the containers 38). The unique route for each vehicle 24 can be selected by the control system 62 based, at least in part, upon the vehicle type (i.e., the type of container or containers the vehicle 24 is configured to accommodate), the unique routes selected for the other vehicles 24, and/or the type of finished product(s) needed by the unloading station 20 for packaging, for example. It is to be appreciated that the system 10 can facilitate filling of different types of containers with different types of fluid more efficiently and effectively than conventional arrangements. For example, conventional arrangements, such as linear conveyor or rotary filling lines, typically only allow for filling of one type of container with one type of fluid at a time. As such, individual systems are oftentimes required for each container and fluid being manufactured which can be expensive and time consuming. In addition, converting these systems to use a different container and/or fluid can also be expensive and time consuming. The system 10 can therefore be a solution that allows for manufacture of different types of filled containers less expensively and in a less time consuming manner than these conventional arrangements.

It should be understood that the operations that take place at the different unit operation stations may take the same amount of time, but often do not. These time periods may be referred to as a first duration, a second duration, a third duration, etc. The first, second, third, etc. durations can be the same, or one can be greater than the other(s). For instance, some unit operation stations perform operations that are relatively fast compared to other unit operation stations; some unit operation stations may be relatively slow; and, some unit operation stations may carry out some operations that are relatively fast and some that are slower (e.g., a filling station that can dispense one ingredient and that can also dispense a larger quantity comprising a complete composition). Therefore, although FIG. 1 shows an equal number of filling/capping unit operation stations and decoration stations, this is not required. Thus, the system may, for example, have fewer of the relatively fast unit operation stations than the slower unit operation stations.

It should also be understood that the time it takes to create different types of finished products from start to finish (throughput time) may be the same, or different for the different types of finished products. The time it takes to create finished products may also be the same, or different for the same types of finished products. The time it takes to create finished products can be measured beginning at a starting point that occurs when an empty vehicle arrives at a loading station and ends at a destination point when the finished product is unloaded at an unloading station.

FIGS. 14-15 show one non-limiting example of a system and method for producing assembled products. FIG. 14 shows a system for making assembled products which comprises a holder 1410 on which a product 1400 will be assembled, a plurality of unit operation stations 1484, 1486, and 1488 disposed through the system configured to assemble components A, B, and C to create a finished product, and a plurality of vehicles 24 propellable through the system. Each holder 1410 is disposed on one of the vehicles 24, and each vehicle 24 is independently routable through the system to deliver the holders 1410 to at least one unit operation station where an assembly operation is performed. Components (e.g., A, B, and C) for assembly can be supplied to the unit operation stations 1484, 1486, and 1488 by an external supply system as shown in FIG. 14, or delivered by one of the plurality of vehicles 24. The finished product is shown in FIG. 15. It should be understood that, although a greatly simplified version of a system is shown in FIG. 14, systems and methods for producing assembled products can utilize any of the configurations and features for such systems contained in this description.

Numerous alternative embodiments and features of the systems and methods described herein are possible.

The unit operation stations may be located in the same contiguous open space, or as shown in the case of one of the unit operation stations 16 in FIG. 1, they may be separated by walls 75 so as to be located in separate rooms, connected only by means of an opening or pass through portion of the path P. The pass-through can be large enough to allow passage of the vehicles and containers/articles. The pass-through may be open or may include a gate or door. The pass through may be fully closed at times when a vehicle is not passing through it. The different rooms may be maintained under different conditions. For example, the addition of a composition comprising a light-sensitive ingredient may be reserved for a darkroom or a temperature/humidity sensitive ingredient reserved for a controlled temperature -room and/or controlled-humidity room. Likewise, addition of compositions that may constitute a human- safety risk such as acids, bases, enzymes and the like may be reserved for a room with additional controls such as personal protective measures.

In the case of forming flexible containers such as those described in The Procter & Gamble Flexible Inflatable Container patent publications, partially-formed containers can be supplied to the system described herein in the form of individual container blanks. The individual container blanks can be conveyed on vehicles 24 having appropriate holders for the same. The container blanks can then be conveyed to one or more stations for performing one or more of the following operations: opening the container blank (as shown in FIG. 6D, for example); decorating the container blanks; filling the product volume of the container blanks with fluent products; closing the product volume after filling; inflating the structural support volumes; and sealing the inflated structural support volumes.

A quality assurance (QA) station can be a station that evaluates the state of a given article/package to ensure that various specifications (related to the efficacy of the product/package/fluent material) are within certain targets or limitations. Such quality assurance stations can include non-invasive imaging methods to check for package quality (ex: no scuff marks or liquid drips on the bottle), or for the quality of the fluent material (homogeneity in the package or fill level or weight in the package), among others. Quality assurance stations can also involve invasive testing - direct sampling of fluent product within a container, say, for microbial testing or homogeneity testing. Quality assurance stations can also be used for in process measures and control. For example, when several portions are added separately to the bottle, the bottle can be weighed between ingredient additions to verify the additions and potentially make necessary adjustments to the addition systems for future bottles.

A station for weighing articles (that is, a checkweigher) can stop the vehicles and weigh the articles, however, it is more desirable to weigh the articles when the vehicles 24 carrying the articles are in motion, in order to increase the throughput of the system. The checkweigher can comprise any suitable type of weigh cell. Weigh cells include but are not limited to strain gage and electromagnetic force restoration (EMFR) weigh cells. In one example, the weigh cell is an EMFR weigh cell. EMFR weigh cells have the ability to handle large dead loads (if necessary) without losing accuracy, and a fast response time. A suitable EMFR weigh cell is available from Wipotec of Roswell, GA, U.S.A.

If desired, the checkweigher may tare itself with no vehicles on it periodically (e.g., every 5 minutes). That is to say that the“dead load” weight may be re-established periodically. This is advantageous to compensate for changes in the“dead load” weight caused, for example, by wear, contamination of part of the“dead load”, removal of contamination, or other factors that may change the apparent weight of the“dead load” equipment. If the“dead load” tare result is significantly different from a previous result, an alarm may alert an operator and the control system may prevent further weighing until action is taken.

In some cases, there are multiple vehicles 24 and each vehicle has a tare weight. If the tare weight of the vehicles 24 are sufficiently similar, the method may comprise subtracting a fixed tare weight (that approximates the tare weight of all the vehicles) from the reading on the weigh cell. In other cases, the method may further comprise: assigning an identification designation to each vehicle; and the step of weighing further comprises identifying which vehicle is carrying an object being weighed (such as by using the controller) and subtracting the identified vehicle’s tare weight from the reading on the weigh cell. In the latter case, it may be desirable to occasionally, periodically, or continually, send the empty vehicles to the checkweigher to check the tare weight of the vehicles to ensure that the vehicles’ tare weights have not changed due to wear, spillage, or other events. Also, each type of vehicle may have a minimum and maximum acceptable tare weight. If a vehicle’s empty weight measurement is outside of that range, the vehicle may be directed to a designated location other than on the checkweigher (such as a maintenance station), where an operator may be alerted. This is useful to prevent blocking use of the checkweigher when a problem occurs with a vehicle.

The controller can also periodically send“calibration vehicles” (or“calibration cars”) to the checkweigher in order to verify weigh cell accuracy. This particular conveyance system also provides the ability to permit periodic, or if desired continual, checking of the vehicle identification (vehicle ID) and assigned tare weight.

The vehicles 24 can be controlled by any suitable control system. The vehicles 24 can be controlled by various different levels of control. There may be some, all, or none of any of the following levels of control: central control of the vehicles; individual control of the vehicles; zone control of the vehicles; and any suitable combinations of these different levels of control. Zone controllers may allocate a two-dimensional space for each vehicle 24 for part of the production area. The vehicles 24 need not have their entire route planned prior to starting along their paths. The control system can provide the vehicles with macro route planning, e.g., determining a general route from point A to point B. The control system may also provide lower level route planning. Such lower level, or micro, planning can be used to move vehicles in front of other vehicles, position a vehicles in position with respect to a unit operation stations (such as under a filler), etc.

Referring now to FIG. 9, the control system 62 can include a vehicle position controller 104, a product scheduling controller 106, and a system controller 108, that are communicatively coupled with each other and can cooperate to facilitate producing finished products. The vehicle position controller 104 can include a positioning module 110 and an anti-collision module 112. The positioning module 110 can facilitate positioning of the vehicles 24 at designated locations along their path P. Each of the vehicles 24 can have a unique identifier associated with it (uniqueness only needs to be relative to the other vehicles in the system) and with which the vehicle positioning module 110 can identify it. As will be described in further detail below, the vehicle position controller 104 can receive desired location coordinates from the system controller 108 for the vehicles 24. The vehicle position controller 104 can cause the vehicles 24 to move along their path P based upon the location coordinates for each vehicle 24. Referring now to the coordinates provided to the vehicle position controller 104 by the system controller 108 as described above, the coordinates provided comprise a specified position to which a pre-defined centerline of the vehicle 24 should be directed. In some instances, such coordinates may be provided by the system controller 108 to the vehicle position controller 104 when the vehicle 24 needs to be moved to a unit operation station so as to undergo an operation at the unit operation station. Such an operation may require aligning a part of the vehicle 24 or a part of the container or other payload carried by the vehicle 24 in a particular position in relation to equipment designed to execute the operation at the unit operation station. Examples of this positioning for operations include, but are not limited to: positioning the centerpoint of the mouth of a bottle or other container underneath a fill nozzle; positioning a cap-carrying feature of the vehicle 24 underneath a capping apparatus; or positioning the centerpoint of a desired position for a cap on a container underneath a capping apparatus. In these operations, the system controller 108 must provide to the vehicle position controller 104 a set of coordinates that, as described above, corresponds to the position where the pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline must be so that the desired alignment is achieved. Such alignment sometimes achieves, but often does not achieve, positioning the pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline in a position directly in relation to equipment that will perform an operation. Often, such alignment involves positioning the pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline in a different position to achieve aligning another feature of the vehicle or its payload with equipment that will perform a transformation, thereby typically positioning the pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline in a position that is offset from the position of equipment that will perform a transformation. The aforementioned offset is related to the difference in position of the feature on the vehicle 24 to be aligned and the position of the pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline. It is to be appreciated that, even when aligning the same particular feature (e.g. the mouth of a container carried by a vehicle 24) with the same particular equipment (e.g. a filler nozzle) that will perform a transformation, the aforementioned offset may vary depending on features of the vehicle 24, features of the payload carried by the vehicle 24, the positioning of the payload carried by the vehicle 24 on the same vehicle 24, or a combination thereof.

To mitigate the problem of the variation in the aforementioned offset, the system controller 108 may be configured to store configuration parameters. Some of these configuration parameters may comprise a single parameter related to each unit operation station, where said single parameter specifies a selection of what sub-feature of a vehicle 24 should be aligned with the unit operation station when the vehicle 24 is to be directed to the unit operation station so as to undergo an operation. For example, a particular parameter for a particular unit operation station may specify that the center of the fill mouth of a container be aligned when a vehicle 24 is directed to a unit operation station so as to undergo an operation. Furthermore, additional configuration parameters may exist. Such additional configuration parameters may comprise information regarding the relationship between a sub-feature of a type of vehicle 24 and the pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline, or information regarding the relationship between a sub-component of a container or other material and a pre-defined centerline of the same component. Examples of relationships between sub-components of a container and a pre-defined centerline of the same component include, but are not limited to, fill mouth position of a container with respect to a container centerline, or desired cap position of a container with respect to container centerline. Examples of relationship between a sub feature of a type of vehicle 24 and the pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline include, but are not limited to, the expected position of the centerline of a container with respect to the pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline, or the expected position of a cap-carrying feature with respect to the pre defined vehicle 24 centerline. Such additional configuration parameters may be configured in the system controller 108, or may be configured in the product scheduling controller 106, or may be configured elsewhere. In the case where the additional configuration parameters are configured in the product scheduling controller 106, information relating to the relevant additional configuration parameters may be communicated to the system controller 108 with each route that is communicated from the product scheduling controller 106 to the system controller 108. The problem of variation in the aforementioned offset can therefore be mitigated by the system controller 108 performing a calculation, where the calculation applies a shift to a position of a unit operation station, where the shift is based on a configuration parameter selecting a desired sub-feature of a vehicle 24 or its payload to align with equipment at said unit operation station, and where the resulting shifted unit operation station position is used to generate coordinates to provide to the vehicle position controller 104 so as to cause the vehicle 24 to move to a position where the desired sub-feature of the vehicle 24 or its payload is properly aligned with equipment at the unit operation station. Such a calculated shift in unit operation station position coordinates is advantageous so as to avoid the need to store a set of coordinates for every unit operation station for every possible combination of type of vehicle 24 and its various possible payloads. In this way, the amount of unit operation station position coordinates that must be configured in the system controller 108 is minimized, as is the effort required when introducing a new type of vehicle 24, or new possible payloads to be carried by vehicles 24. It is to be appreciated that the calculated shift in unit operation station may also be calculated based on additional information. For example, additional information may comprise information that was measured. As a specific example, the additional information may comprise a measured position of a container on a vehicle 24 with respect to a pre-defined vehicle 24 centerline of the same vehicle 24.

The control system 62 can be a software-based control system or a computer-based (or computing device-based) control system. Any suitable computing device or combination of computing devices (not shown), as would be understood in the art can be used, including without limitation, a custom chip, an embedded processing device, a tablet computing device, a personal data assistant (PDA), a desktop, a laptop, a microcomputer, a minicomputer, a server, a mainframe, or any other suitable programmable device. Of course, it is understood that software will run on such devices. In various embodiments disclosed herein, a single component can be replaced by multiple components and multiple components can be replaced by a single component to perform a given function or functions. Except where such substitution would not be operative, such substitution is within the intended scope of the embodiments.

The computing device can include a processor that can be any suitable type of processing unit, for example a general purpose central processing unit (CPU), a reduced instruction set computer (RISC), a processor that has a pipeline or multiple processing capability including having multiple cores, a complex instruction set computer (CISC), a digital signal processor (DSP), an application specific integrated circuit (ASIC), a programmable logic devices (PLD), and a field programmable gate array (FPGA), among others. The computing resources can also include distributed computing devices, cloud computing resources, and virtual computing resources in general.

The computing device can also include one or more memories, for example read only memory (ROM), random access memory (RAM), cache memory associated with the processor, or other memories such as dynamic RAM (DRAM), static ram (SRAM), programmable ROM (PROM), electrically erasable PROM (EEPROM), flash memory, a removable memory card or disk, a solid state drive, and so forth. The computing device can also include storage media such as a storage device that can be configured to have multiple modules, such as magnetic disk drives, floppy drives, tape drives, hard drives, optical drives and media, magneto-optical drives and media, compact disk drives, Compact Disk Read Only Memory (CD-ROM), Compact Disk Recordable (CD-R), Compact Disk Rewriteable (CD-RW), a suitable type of Digital Versatile Disk (DVD) or BluRay disk, and so forth. Storage media such as flash drives, solid state hard drives, redundant array of individual disks (RAID), virtual drives, networked drives and other memory means including storage media on the processor, or memories are also contemplated as storage devices. It can be appreciated that such memory can be internal or external with respect to operation of the disclosed embodiments. It can be appreciated that certain portions of the processes described herein can be performed using instructions stored on a computer- readable medium or media that direct a computer system to perform the process steps. Non- transitory computer-readable media, as used herein, comprises all computer-readable media except for transitory, propagating signals.

Network and communication interfaces can be configured to transmit to, or receive data from, other computing devices across a network. The network and communication interfaces can be an Ethernet interface, a radio interface, a Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface, or any other suitable communications interface and can include receivers, transmitters, and transceivers. For purposes of clarity, a transceiver can be referred to as a receiver or a transmitter when referring to only the input or only the output functionality of the transceiver. Example communication interfaces can include wired data transmission links such as Ethernet and TCP/IP. The communication interfaces can include wireless protocols for interfacing with private or public networks. For example, the network and communication interfaces and protocols can include interfaces for communicating with private wireless networks such as a WiFi network, one of the IEEE 802.1 lx family of networks, or another suitable wireless network. The network and communication interfaces can include interfaces and protocols for communicating with public wireless networks, using for example wireless protocols used by cellular network providers, including Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). A computing device can use network and communication interfaces to communicate with hardware modules such as a database or data store, or one or more servers or other networked computing resources. Data can be encrypted or protected from unauthorized access.

In various configurations, the computing device can include a system bus for interconnecting the various components of the computing device, or the computing device can be integrated into one or more chips such as a programmable logic device or application specific integrated circuit (ASIC). The system bus can include a memory controller, a local bus, or a peripheral bus for supporting input and output devices, and communication interfaces. Example input and output devices include keyboards, keypads, gesture or graphical input devices, motion input devices, touchscreen interfaces, one or more displays, audio units, voice recognition units, vibratory devices, computer mice, and any other suitable user interface.

The processor and memory can include non-volatile memory for storing computer- readable instructions, data, data structures, program modules, code, microcode, and other software components for storing the computer-readable instructions in non-transitory computer-readable mediums in connection with the other hardware components for carrying out the methodologies described herein. Software components can include source code, compiled code, interpreted code, executable code, static code, dynamic code, encrypted code, or any other suitable type of code or computer instructions implemented using any suitable high-level, low-level, object-oriented, visual, compiled, or interpreted programming language.

Referring again to FIG. 9, the vehicle position controller 104 can control operation of the vehicles 24 to facilitate routing of the vehicles 24 along their paths P. The vehicle position controller 104 can also prevent collisions between the vehicles 24 in the system. For example, the vehicle position controller 104 can track the positions and/or speed of the vehicles 24. If a vehicle 24 begins approaching another vehicle 24 in a manner that could cause a collision, the vehicle position controller 104 can adjust the speed (increasing or decreasing the speed) of the approaching vehicle 24 and/or the approached vehicle 24 to prevent a collision. It is to be appreciated that the vehicle position controller 104 can be an on-board controller that is located on the vehicles 24.

The control system 62 may be configured to receive orders in one or more of the following manners: via post office mail, via e-mail, via a website, via an application on a smart phone, via manual entry, and via production demand software (such as SAP software available from SAP SE).

The product scheduling controller 106 can be configured to assign a container type and fluent material type (e.g., a finished product) for each empty vehicle 24. The product scheduling controller 106 can also be configured to assign a desired route that achieves the assigned finished product. The system controller 108 can be configured to route the vehicles 24 through the system 22 and operate the unit operation stations 14, 16, 18, 20 based upon the finished product and route assigned to the vehicles 24. The control system 62 may be configured as a central assignment mechanism that pre assigns independent routes for the vehicles based on demand data. The control system 62: receives demand for finished products to be made with the system; determines a route for a vehicle, wherein the route is determined based on a status of one or more unit operation stations; and causes a vehicle to be propelled to progress along the determined route to create one or more of the demanded finished products, and delivers the finished products to an unloading station. It should be understood that these steps can be taking place in the above order, or in any order, provided that at least some demand for finished products to be made is first received. Generally, when there are multiple vehicles being routed, the control system can be performing such steps for the different vehicles. These vehicles may be at different stages of going through these steps at any given time (and the control system can be executing any of these steps for the various vehicles at any given time).

The status of the unit operation station(s) can comprise: (a) the state of readiness of a unit operation station (whether the unit operation station is broken down, or not); (b) one or more capabilities of the unit operation station (that is, a description of the unit operation(s)); (c) information concerning operations expected or scheduled to be completed at one or more unit operation stations in the future (including the progress of other vehicles along their routes); (d) information concerning the capacity utilization of the unit operation station (that is, how much of its capacity is used relative to its full capacity, or conversely how often it is idle relative to its full capacity); (e) information concerning the capacity utilization of other unit operation stations (utilization of other unit operation stations (similar or dissimilar)); (f) information concerning the availability of raw materials (e.g., fluent material(s), labels, etc.) to the unit operation station; and (g) information concerning expected maintenance activities involving the unit operation station.

The determined route may, in some cases, have one or more constraints on arriving at one or more unit operation stations before one or more other vehicles or after one or more other vehicles. In other cases, the determined route may not have any constraints on arriving at one or more unit operation stations before one or more other vehicles or after one or more other vehicles. The determined route is determined based on status information of a vehicle. Such status information may include: the vehicle’s container-holding interface type, maximum velocity of the vehicle, maximum acceleration of the vehicle, maximum container weight that can be held by the vehicle, maximum container size, and any other relevant information about the vehicle. The determined route can be selected from a subset of all possible routes, and more particularly is selected from a set of all possible routes that will result in creating a demanded finished product. The determined route is selected by comparing potential routes where such comparison takes into account the utilization or capacity of one or more unit operation stations and the selected route may be selected to best utilize the capacity of one or more unit operation stations.

The determined route may take into consideration the routes assigned to other vehicles 24, including the extent to which the other vehicles have actually progressed along their planned routes, so as to avoid congestion caused by excessive vehicles reaching a similar location at a similar time, and so as to ensure vehicles will arrive in a desired sequence where appropriate.

The determined route may be determined using an algorithm (described as follows), where the algorithm may comprise a recursive method so as to be applicable to a wide range of system configurations and unit operation station configurations without requiring modifications to the algorithm’s recursive method. The algorithm may implement a system where unit operation stations demand partially or completely finished products from other unit operation stations so as to enable the unit operation stations to contribute towards creating finished products specified in the step of receiving demand for finished products to be made. The demand from the unit operation stations may describe needed products and times when those products may be needed. (The loading unit operation stations will, however, typically receive demand for vehicles, rather than partially or completely finished products.) The demand from the unit operation stations makes it possible for the route-determining algorithm to only consider routes connecting unit operation stations with appropriate demand, substantially reducing the time and processing power required to determine a route as compared to an algorithm that would evaluate the merits of every possible way to route a vehicle through the system. Such an algorithm could solve the problem of determining a best route from many possible ways to route a vehicle through the system (100 billion, 1 trillion, or many more ways being possible in some embodiments) in a short period of time (e.g., less than one second), or a very short period of time (100 milliseconds, 50 milliseconds, 5 milliseconds, or less in some embodiments). Such an algorithm may take the form of several embodiments, some of which may also assign a quantity or priority to the demanded products at unit operation stations, and some of which may calculate such a priority based on attributes of an order. Such attributes of an order may comprise a selected shipping method or requested delivery time. An example of the vehicle position controller 104, the product scheduling controller 106, and the system controller 108 cooperating to create a finished product will now be described. First, when the vehicle 24 is empty (either due to system start-up or being emptied at the unloading station), the system controller 108 can request, from the product scheduling controller 106, the next finished product to be assigned to the vehicle 24. The product scheduling controller 106 can assign a finished product to the vehicle 24 and can provide the desired route for the vehicle 24 to take to complete the finished product. The system controller 108 can then provide coordinates to the vehicle position controller 104 that will route the vehicle 24 to one of the container loading stations 14. The vehicle position controller 104 then routes the vehicle 24 to the container loading station 14 (via the designated coordinates) and notifies the system controller 108 when the vehicle 24 has reached its destination. The system controller 108 can then facilitate operation of the container loading station 14. After the container 38 is loaded onto the vehicle 24, the system controller 108 can provide coordinates to the vehicle position controller 104 that will route the vehicle 24 to one of the filling/capping stations 16. The vehicle position controller 104 then routes the vehicle 24 to the filling/capping station 16 (via the designated coordinates) and notifies the system controller 108 when the vehicle 24 has reached its destination. The system controller 108 can then facilitate operation of the filling/capping station 16. After the container 38 is filled and capped, the system controller 108 can provide coordinates to the vehicle position controller 104 that will route the vehicle 24 to one of the decoration stations 18. The vehicle position controller 104 then routes the vehicle 24 to the decoration station 18 (via the designated coordinates) and notifies the system controller 108 when the vehicle 24 has reached its destination. The system controller 108 can then facilitate operation of the decoration station 18. After the container 38 is decorated, the system controller 108 can provide coordinates to the vehicle position controller 104 that will route the vehicle 24 to one of unloading stations 20. The vehicle position controller 104 then routes the vehicle 24 to the unloading station 20 (via the designated coordinates) and notifies the system controller 108 when the vehicle 24 has reached its destination. The system controller 108 can then facilitate operation of the unloading station 20. After the container 38 is removed from the vehicle 24, the system controller 108 can request, from the product scheduling controller 106, the next finished product to be assigned to the vehicle 24.

In some embodiments, the system controller 108 can deviate the vehicle 24 from the desired path (assigned by the product scheduling controller 106) to overcome certain problems, such as a traffic jam, sequencing violation (sequencing is described below), and/or a defect or reject condition (e.g., bottle missing, cap missing, cap misaligned, etc.)· The deviated path can be determined by the product scheduling controller 106 and/or the system controller 108.

It is to be appreciated that the vehicle position controller 104, the product scheduling controller 106, and the system controller 108 can facilitate simultaneous routing of the vehicles 24 through the system 10 such that the containers 38 are at various stages of production. To facilitate effective and efficient simultaneous routing of the vehicles 24, the vehicle position controller 104, the product scheduling controller 106, and the system controller 108 can share information about the vehicles 24 and/or containers 38. For example, the system controller 108 can share, with the product scheduling controller 106, the positions of the vehicles 24, the production status of each container 38, and/or any route deviations. The product scheduling controller 106 can share, with the system controller 108, the finished product and route assignments for the vehicles 24.

As described above, the product scheduling controller 106 can assign a container type, a closure type, a fluent material type, a decoration type, and a route for each empty vehicle 24 identified by the system controller 108. It is to be appreciated that although this embodiment describes assignment of a container type, a closure type, a fluent material type, and a decoration type, other embodiments may specify other finished product attributes. Other finished product attributes may include values related to the dimensions of a container or any part or parts thereof, values related to the mass of one or more parts of the product at one or more stages of completion including the finished product, fill quantity or level, or additional attributes similar to those previously or subsequently described such as a front label type and a back label type. Still more other finished product attributes may include targets or acceptable ranges of values for any one or more of the aforementioned finished product attributes or other finished product attributes. Furthermore, other finished product attributes may include parameters related to setup of unit operation stations to be used during operating on the finished product specified (for example, bottle height will dictate the height to which a filler nozzle will be adjusted).

One embodiment of a control routine implemented by the product scheduling controller 106 in assigning a container type, a closure type, a fluent material type, a decoration type, and a route for each empty vehicle 24 is generally illustrated in FIGS. 10, 11, 12, 13A, and 13B which will now be discussed. The product scheduling process can be separated into four phases - a Sequencing Phase (FIG. 10), a Demand Propagation Phase (FIG. 11), an Effective Route Identification Phase (FIG. 12), and a Route Ranking Phase (FIGS. 13A and 13B). Generally, during the Sequencing Phase, production schedules can be assigned to each unloading station 20. During the Demand Propagation Phase, unit operation stations are identified that have or will have demand so as to contribute to one or more of the finished products specified by each unloading station’s 20 production schedule. During the Effective Route Identification Phase, a plurality of effective routes for the current vehicle 24 are identified based on the unit operation stations’ demand information. During the Route Ranking Phase, the best route and related finished product can be selected from the plurality of effective routes that are generated during the Effective Route Identification Phase.

Referring now to FIG. 10, the Sequencing Phase will now be discussed in greater detail. First, a production order can be provided to the product scheduling controller 106 (step 200). The production order can include the quantity of packages that are desired and the types of finished products that are to be provided in each package. Further, the production order can be made in units larger than an individual package such as in units of cases or pallets. It is understood that a case or pallet may contain the same or different packages. The sequencing phase can sequence and prioritize the production of specific packages to support the overall production order. Prioritization may take into account the sequence of packages required to assemble a case or pallet. In addition, prioritization may take into account the urgency of each unit of larger order. Each package may include different types and/or quantities of finished products. In describing the types of finished products that are to be provided within a package, the production order may additionally specify sequencing information. This sequencing information may either specify an explicit sequence of arrival of products, or specify that the sequence of product arrivals for the package is unimportant, or specify a combination thereof in which for example one or more first products must arrive before one or more second products but in any sequence with respect to one or more third products. In one embodiment, the production order can be generated from a customer order that is received at an upstream computer system (e.g., from a procurement software program). The upstream computer system can convey the production order to the product scheduling controller 106 which can then allocate packages to the unloading stations 20 for fulfillment (205). Packages are assigned to an unloading station 20 in a specific sequence, thusly establishing a production schedule for each unloading station 20. This sequence specifies the order of production of packages at each unloading station 20, but does not specify the sequence of production of packages by the overall system 10. To further explain using a specific example, if a production order describes packages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, packages may be assigned to a first unloading station 20 in the sequence of 2, 1, 5, and packages may be assigned to a second unloading station 20 in the sequence of 3, 6, 4, but the system 10 may produce the packages in order 2, 1, 3, 5, 6, 4 or order 2, 3, 1, 6, 5, 4 or order 3, 6, 4, 2, 1, 5 or any other order that does not violate the package sequencing of a particular unloading station 20. It should be noted that in the previously described specific example, even though package production is described as a sequenced process, finished products feeding multiple packages can be produced simultaneously, such that more than one package is in the process of being produced at the same time, so the sequence described refers to the completion of the process of producing a package, and it is possible that more than one package may be completed at nearly the exact same moment in time.

Once at least one of the unloading stations 20 has been assigned a package, the system controller 108 can select a vehicle 24 for assignment of a route and associated finished product thereto (the current vehicle). The vehicle 24 can be selected from among a plurality of vehicles 24 in the system 10 (e.g., when the system 10 is first initialized/started up) or when the vehicle 24 has completed the previously assigned finished product (e.g., after leaving the unloading station 20). Most typically, the selected vehicle is empty. In some cases, however, a vehicle 24 may have aborted a previous route during route execution (e.g. because a unit operation station breaks down), so that vehicle 24 may be selected for assignment of a new route even though it is not empty. Once the vehicle 24 has been selected, the system controller 108 can request, from the product scheduling controller 106, the route and associated finished product that is to be assigned to that vehicle 24. Each route request describes the type of vehicle and any operations that have already been completed on that vehicle on a previous route that included loading a container but did not include unloading the container.

The Demand Propagation Phase (215) will now be discussed in greater detail and with reference to FIG. 10 and the other drawing figures. In one embodiment, hereafter referred to as the Assignment-Time Calculated Demand Embodiment, the Demand Propagation Phase (215) is entered upon receiving the route request from the system controller 108. In another embodiment, hereafter referred to as the Pre-Calculated Demand Embodiment, the Demand Propagation Phase (215) can be entered without waiting for a route request from the system controller 108, so that a route can be assigned in response to a route request from the system controller 108 in less time, because the Demand Propagation Phase (215) will have already been completed. This is possible because the Demand Propagation Phase (215) does not depend on having previously selected a vehicle 24 for route assignment. A disadvantage of the Pre-Calculated Demand Embodiment is that it may require more computing overall, since the Demand Propagation Phase (215) may be executed more times than needed. Although the events triggering the Assignment-Time Calculated Demand Embodiment and the Pre- Calculated Demand embodiment differ, the Demand Calculation process is the same and will next be described in greater detail.

First, the product scheduling controller 106 can identify all of the finished products that are needed next at each of the available (e.g. not broken down) unloading stations 20 to fulfill the unloading station’ s 20 production schedule in the order specified by the unloading station’ s 20 production schedule, and establishes demand items corresponding to these products (300). These demand items can be understood to describe the finished products that are currently assigned to each unloading station 20 and which can next be loaded into the package without interfering with the order of the overall package as defined by the production schedule, and where no vehicle 24 has already been assigned a route and associated finished product to thereby fulfill. The demand items may also be partially finished products that have completed one or more, but not all, of the steps in the process of creating the finished products, or empty vehicles (in the case of loading unit operation stations). Thusly, it can be understood that demand items 300 comprise descriptions of products which may be finished products or partially finished products.

Furthermore, each demand item also describes a time span. The time span described by each demand item specifies the time range during which such a product should arrive at the unit operation station, in this case the unit operation station being an unloading station 20. This time range ensures that the demand item does not describe a need for a product that would arrive earlier than a prerequisite product, nor later than a postrequisite product. Through additional processing to be described below, this time range can more generally be described as representing a time range when the arrival of the described product would not violate any system constraints.

Each demand item is furthermore associated with a particular unit operation station, such that it could be said that the unit operation station has one or more demand items, or that the unit operation station has no demand items. Each demand item is furthermore associated with a particular type of operation which would be performed at the associated unit operation station. Once the product scheduling controller 106 has completed establishing all appropriate demand items for each unloading station 20, the furthest downstream unit operation station group is selected for demand propagation, hereafter referred to as the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand. The demand items associated with the Unit Operation Station Projecting Demand now undergo a refinement (310) so as to not include any time during which the previously scheduled vehicles 24 are expected to result in the Unit Operation Station Projecting Demand’s infeed queue being at full capacity, wherein this refinement (310) may result in any of the following: no modification to the demand items; splitting demand items into two or more additional demand items wherein the additional demand items are identical to their original demand item in all but time span; shortening the associated time spans by adjusting one or both of the beginning or end times; or eliminating demand items altogether. Next, each of the demand items associated with each of the unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand is evaluated. The product scheduling controller 106 can then identify the furthest downstream unit operation station group that is upstream of the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand (i.e., the unit operation stations a vehicle 24 might encounter immediately before proceeding to a unit operation station in the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand), hereafter referred to as the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand.

Each unit operation station group may also have associated therewith a representation of a non-existent unit operation station (a virtual unit operation station). Since not every container needs to receive a treatment at every unit operation station group, the virtual unit operation station is merely a mechanism in the computer program to allow the container to by pass one or more unit operation station groups, or to not have a treatment performed by such unit operation station. For example, if the containers provided into the system comprise pre labeled bottles, there will be no need for the container to be labeled at a decoration station.

In the example of FIG. 1 , the furthest downstream unit operation station group that is upstream of the unloading stations 20 that have demand items can be the decoration stations 18. The product scheduling controller 106 can then select one unit operation station from the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand, hereafter referred to as the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand. The product scheduling controller 106 can then determine whether the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand is currently available (315) or if it supports one or more operations that will establish one or more attributes of the product described by the demand item currently being evaluated (320). If the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand is currently unavailable or if it does not support one or more operations that will establish one or more attributes of the product described by the demand item currently being evaluated, the evaluation of this demand item being processed by the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand is complete. If the Unit Operation Propagating Demand is currently available and supports one or more operations that will establish one or more attributes of the product described by the demand item, the product scheduling controller 106 can calculate the time delay (330) which can be the time it takes for the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand to complete its operation on the container (e.g., the operation time) in addition to the travel time from the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand to the unit operation station associated with the demand item. Thusly, the time span specified by the demand item being evaluated having been offset by the above-described time delay (330) can be taken to mean the time range during which the operation can begin at the unit operation station.

A new demand item can then be created (340), where the new demand item is associated with the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand, has a time span specified as the time span of the demand item being evaluated minus a time delay (330). The new demand item’s described product is the product described by the demand item being evaluated minus the attribute or attributes established by the operation to be completed at the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand. The new demand item’s time span will then undergo a first refinement (345) so as to not include any time during which the previously scheduled vehicles 24 are expected to result in the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand’ s infeed queue being at full capacity, wherein this first refinement (345) may result in any of the following: no modification to the new demand item; splitting the new demand item into two or more additional demand items wherein the additional demand items are identical to the new demand item in all but time span; shortening the time span by adjusting one or both of the beginning or end times; or eliminating the new demand item altogether.

This first refinement (345) and the refinement (310) are useful, because they accomplish avoiding demand during times when assigning a vehicle 24 to meet that demand would result in exceeding the capacity of the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand’s infeed queue. Furthermore, this first refinement can similarly refine the time span of the new demand item so as to avoid demand during times when assigning a vehicle 24 to meet that demand would result in that vehicle 24 causing the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand’s infeed queue to exceed its capacity, wherein such a capacity violation would be caused either directly by the arrival of that vehicle 24 or indirectly by the cascading impact of previously scheduled but subsequently arriving other vehicles 24, and where such capacity is represented by a configuration parameter associated with the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand.

Upon completion of the first refinement (345), the set of any remaining of the new demand item or additional demand items, hereafter collectively referred to as the Set of Remaining Demand Items, can be understood to represent time spans when beginning the operation on the described product would not violate any system constraints. The Set of Remaining Demand Items is again time shifted, this time to adjust according to previously scheduled vehicles 24 so that the resulting time spans represent time spans when arrival of the described product at the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand’s infeed queue would not violate any system constraints, thusly taking into account time when a vehicle 24 would be waiting in the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand’s infeed queue prior to beginning the operation, which can be known based on previously assigned routes to other vehicles 24 combined with vehicle 24 position information shared from the system controller 108 with the product scheduling controller 106. This time shift applied to the Set of Remaining Demand Items marks the completion of the evaluation of this demand item being processed by the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand.

When the evaluation of this demand item being processed by the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand is complete (e.g. the Unit Operation Station Propagating Demand has been found to either be unsuitable for this demand item or else new demand items were created and refined), the product scheduling controller 106 can then proceed to evaluate this demand item being processed by each of the other unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand by the same process as was used to evaluate this demand item being processed by the Unit Operation Station Propagating demand.

When the evaluation of this demand item being processed by each of the unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand is complete, the product scheduling controller 106 proceeds to continue evaluating each demand item associated with the Unit Operation Station Projecting Demand being processed by each of the unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand. When the evaluation of each demand item associated with the Unit Operation Station Projecting Demand by each of the unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand has been completed, the product scheduling controller 106 evaluates each of the demand items associated with each of the other unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand being processed by each of the unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand. When this is completed, demand propagation for the demand items associated with the unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand is complete, and new demand items may have been created that are associated with unit operation stations in the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand. Next, the Demand Propagation Phase continues with the product scheduling controller 106 selecting the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand as the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand, and selecting the furthest downstream unit operation station group that is upstream of the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand as the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand, and similarly completing demand propagation for any demand items associated with the new Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand. This process repeats until the furthest upstream unit operation station group would be selected as the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand, at which point the Demand Propagation Phase is complete.

In another embodiment of the Demand Propagation Phase, an additional demand aggregation step may be executed in between processing demand for each unit operation station group (e.g. each time a different unit operation station group is selected as the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand). The demand aggregation step will examine the demand items associated with each unit operation station in the newly selected Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand, and, after accounting for differences in travel time from an upstream interface point, creates a set of new demand items based on this set of existing demand items, where the set of new demand items describes time periods when products arriving at the interface point would not violate any system constraints. In establishing the set of new demand items, duplicate time spans for similar products can be eliminated, and adjacent demand items can be merged, reducing the number of demand items to process. This is advantageous to reduce the processing time required to complete the Demand Propagation Phase. When such an additional demand aggregation step is used, the set of new demand items is projected to the Unit Operation Station Group Propagating Demand instead of the demand items associated with the Unit Operation Station Group Projecting Demand, and the calculated time delay 330 does not factor in the travel time from the interface point to the Unit Operation Station Projecting Demand, since this travel time was already accounted for.

In yet another embodiment of the Demand Propagation Phase, demand items may also specify a quantity of the described product. When these quantities are propagated with their associated demand items, additional demand information is available to the subsequent phases of the product scheduling process, which can help to better optimize production efficiency, and can be used to assign more than one route without executing the Demand Propagation Phase in between route assignments as would normally be required. This can be advantageous so as to reduce the amount of computing the product scheduling controller 106 must perform.

The Effective Route Identification Phase will now be discussed in greater detail with reference to FIG. 12. Upon receiving the route request 400 from the system controller 108, the route request 400 including a description of the type of vehicle and state of assembly, the product scheduling controller 106 can enter the Effective Route Identification Phase. Firstly, if the Demand Propagation Phase has not already been completed as in the case of the pre calculated demand embodiment, the Demand Propagation Phase is now completed. A projected route time is established as the time when the route request 400 was received by the product scheduling controller 106. A current product type is established as the vehicle and state of assembly described by the route request. For each unit operation station in the furthest upstream unit operation station group, the iterative route identification process 405 is completed.

The iterative route identification process 405 starts with the product scheduling controller 106 establishing a potential route buffer, and copying into it the contents of the previous potential route buffer if one exists 410. The iterative route identification 405 process continues with the product scheduling controller 106 modifying the projected route time by adding the time it takes to travel from an upstream interface point to the current unit operation station. The iterative route identification process continues with the product scheduling controller 106 determining if the current unit operation station has a demand item describing the current product type where the associated time span includes the projected route time 415, where such a demand item is hereafter referred to as the Relevant Demand Item. If a Relevant Demand Item does not exist, the potential route buffer is deleted 420 and no further action is taken by this instance of the iterative route identification process 405. If a Relevant Demand Item does exist, the iterative route identification process 405 continues by adding information describing the current unit operation station and the operation specified by the Relevant Demand Item to the potential route buffer 425.

If the current unit operation station is not part of the furthest downstream unit operation station group 430, a new instance of the iterative route identification process 405 is started for each unit operation station in the unit operation station group immediately downstream of the unit operation station group to which the current unit operation station belongs, where the new instances of the iterative route identification process 405 are provided with projected route times that have been amended to add the time a vehicle would spend waiting at the current unit operation station’s infeed queue during execution of this route wherein this time is based on previously scheduled vehicles 24 and information shared from the system controller 108, the time a vehicle would spend undergoing the operation specified by the Relevant Demand Item at the current unit operation station, and the travel time from the current unit operation station to a downstream interface point. Likewise, the new instances of the iterative route identification process are provided with this instance’s potential route buffer to copy into their new potential route buffers. Likewise, the product type considered by the new instances of the iterative route identification process are taken to be the product type considered by this instance of the iterative route identification process, modified to include the one or more attributes established by the operation specified by the Relevant Demand Item. If the current unit operation station belongs to the furthest downstream unit operation station group, the potential route buffer is added to a list of effective routes 435, which completes this instance of the iterative route identification process 405.

Once each instance of the iterative route identification process 405 has completed, the list of effective routes comprises a list of all potential routes the vehicle 24 specified in the route request 400 may be assigned, which is to say the list of all potential routes that will deliver a product to a package specified by the production order without violating any system constraints. Once each instance of the iterative route identification process 405 has completed 440, the Effective Route Identification Phase is complete and the Route Ranking Phase begins 445. In one embodiment, the Effective Route Identification Phase would only continue as long as the number of routes in the list of effective routes is less than a specified number. This would have the effect of identifying no more than a specified number of routes, which can be beneficial to reduce the worst-case processing time for the Effective Route Identification Phase, although this embodiment does pose a risk of not identifying the best route as an effective route. The specified number of routes may be a fixed number, or a number calculated based on parameters related to processor utilization of the product scheduling controller 106.

The Route Ranking Phase will now be discussed in greater detail with reference to FIGS. 13A and 13B. The Route Ranking Phase comprises first undergoing the Route Metric Generation Sub-Phase and subsequently the Route Sorting Sub-Phase.

The Route Metric Generation Sub-Phase will now be discussed in greater detail. First, the product scheduling controller 106 can calculate a weighting factor (510) for each unit operation station group based on the utilization of each unit operation station within the unit operation station group, where unit operation station groups that have less unused capacity will yield larger weighting factor values. This weighting factor enables better production optimization because it allows calculations subsequently described to prioritize optimizing capacity utilization of the busiest unit operation stations.

For each route in the list of effective routes, the product scheduling controller 106 will perform the following calculations to identify a Queue Length (QL) metric, an Unused Unit Count (UC) metric, a Nearly Starved Unit Count (NSC) metric, a Vehicles Already Scheduled Count (VASC) metric, and a Non-Productive Time (NPT) metric. The QL metric is related to the sum of infeed queue lengths at each unit operation station along the current effective route at the time this vehicle 24 would arrive if this route is selected. The UC metric is related to the number of unit operation stations along the current effective route that will have been idle and starved for a specified period of time before this vehicle’s 24 arrival if this route is selected. The NSC metric is related to the number of unit operation stations along the current effective route that will become idle if not for the selection and execution of this route by this vehicle 24. The VASC metric is related to the number of previously scheduled vehicles 24 scheduled to in the future arrive at the unit operation stations along the current effective route. The NPT metric is related to the time this vehicle 24 would spend travelling or waiting at unit operation station infeed queues along the current effective route. The product scheduling controller 106 can initially set to zero each of a QL metric, a UC metric, an NSC metric, a VASC metric, and an NPT metric.

For each unit operating station along the current effective route, the following calculations are performed to update the route’s QL metric, UC metric, NSC metric, VASC metric, and NPT metric. The product scheduling controller 106 can calculate a QL value (515) by multiplying the weighting factor with the infeed queue length at the time the vehicle 24 is expected to arrive at the unit operation station. The QL value can be added to the QL metric (520). The product scheduling controller 106 can then calculate a UC value (525). If this unit operation station has no other vehicles 24 scheduled for operations during a specified period of time immediately preceding the expected arrival of this vehicle 24 at this unit operation station, the UC value is the weighting factor. Otherwise, the UC value is zero. The UC value can be added to the UC metric (530). The product scheduling controller 106 can then calculate a NSC value (535). If this unit operation station will become idle if not for the arrival of this vehicle and its ensuing associated operation, the NSC value is the weighting factor. Otherwise, the NSC value is zero. The NSC value can be added to the NSC metric (540). The product scheduling controller 106 can then calculate a VASC value (545) by multiplying the weighting factor with the number of previously scheduled vehicles 24 scheduled to in the future arrive at the unit operation station. The VASC value can be added to the VASC metric (550). The product scheduling controller 106 can then calculate an NPT value (555) by multiplying the weighting factor with the sum of: 1) the travel time from an upstream unit operation station to this unit operation station, and 2) the time the current vehicle is expected wait in the infeed queue of this unit operation station. The NPT value can be added to the NPT metric (560). When the QL metric, UC metric, NSC metric, VASC metric, and NPT metric have all been calculated for all routes in the list of effective routes, the Route Metric Generation Sub-Phase is complete and the product scheduling controller 106 begins the Route Sorting Sub-Phase.

Referring to FIG. 13B, the Route Sorting Sub-Phase will now be described in greater detail. The Route Sorting Sub-Phase will compare the metrics generated during the Route Metric Generation Sub-Phase to identify the best route for the current vehicle 24 from the list of effective routes identified in the Effective Route Identification Phase. Each route in the list of effective routes is compared to the other routes in the list of effective routes on the basis of the metrics generated during the Route Metric Generation Sub-Phase. A route with a smaller QL metric is a better route 585. If the QL metrics are identical, a route with a higher UC metric is a better route 595. If the QL and UC metrics are identical, a route with a higher NSC metric is a better route 600. If the QL, UC, and NSC metrics are identical, a route with a higher VASC metric is a better route 605. If the QL, UC, NSC, and VASC metrics are identical, a route with a lower NPT metric is a better route 610. If the QL, UC, NSC, VASC, and NPT metrics are identical, neither route is better than the other 615, so a route is arbitrarily selected. Once the product scheduling controller 106 has identified the best route from the list of effective routes, the specifics of the route are communicated to the system controller 108 so as to enable the system controller 108 to cause the vehicle 24 to move as specified by the route and operate unit operation stations as specified by the route.

It is to be appreciated that, on some occasions, the list of effective routes 435 may be empty at the completion of the Effective Route Identification Phase. This may occur for numerous reasons, including but not limited to: there are no outstanding production orders; one or more unit operation stations required to contribute to a given product are not available or not existent; infeed queues are planned to be full at one or more unit operation stations at times when proposed routes would have a selected vehicle 24 arrive; there are otherwise no demand items resulting from the Demand Propagation phase associated with the unit operation stations of the furthest upstream unit operation station group; or the selected vehicle 24 is no compatible with any demand items associated with the unit operation stations of the furthest upstream unit operation station group. In such a situation, there is no effective route available to be assigned to the selected vehicle 24 at the present time. The product scheduling controller 106 and the system controller 108 may be configured to handle a lack of effective routes in a variety of embodiments, some of which will now be discussed in greater detail, and which will hereafter be referred to as No Route Available Embodiments.

In a first No Route Available Embodiment, the product scheduling controller 106 may be configured to assign no route to the selected vehicle 24. In this first No Route Available Embodiment, the system controller 108 having no route associated with the selected vehicle 24 will cause the vehicle 24 to remain stationary indefinitely. In this first No Route Available Embodiment, the product scheduling controller may periodically re-execute one or more of the route assignment phases, either in a time-based manner, or based upon receiving repeated route requests from the system controller 108. During such re-execution of one or more route assignment phases, one or more effective routes may be identified that were not identified during previous executions of one or more phases of the route assignment, due to a variety of reasons including but not limited to: a new production order was provided to the product scheduling controller 106, a unit operation station that was previously unavailable becomes available, or the progress or lack of progress of other vehicles 24 along their previously assigned routes has changed the expectation of the fullness of infeed queues of one or more unit operation station. In a second No Route Available Embodiment, the product scheduling controller 106 may be configured to create a route comprised solely of executing no operations while visiting a virtual unit operation station of each unit operation station group. Such a route would be communicated to the system controller 108 and would result in the system controller 108 routing the vehicle to each virtual unit operation station before the vehicle 24 could again become eligible to be selected for route assignment. In a common example of this embodiment, the selected vehicle 24 would be routed along a path in a continuously moving manner. In this way, unlike the first No Route Available Embodiment, the selected vehicle 24 would not continuously obstruct the movement of other vehicles 24, and thus would not continuously prevent the system from producing products when there are no effective routes available for a particular vehicle 24 at a particular time. In one variation of the second No Route Available Embodiment, the product scheduling controller 106 may be configured to create a route involving visiting only one or a subset of virtual unit operation stations. In this variation, the virtual unit operation station or virtual unit operation stations may exist only to support such route assignments in the event of there being no effective routes available, such that the virtual unit operation station or virtual unit operation stations do not belong to a unit operation station group and cannot be selected as part of an effective route. This variation is useful when it would be advantageous to define a specific route for all vehicles 24 when they are selected for route assignment, but no compatible effective routes exist. In either variation of the second No Route Available Embodiment, the route that is generated by the product scheduling controller 106 is hereafter referred to as a Bypass Route.

A third No Route Available Embodiment involves the product scheduling controller 106 being configured exactly as described in the second No Route Available Embodiment. In this third No Route Available Embodiment, the scheduling controller 106 identifies whether a route assigned by the product scheduling controller 106 is an effective route or a Bypass Route. If the assigned route is a Bypass Route, the system controller 108 will make a determination whether to direct the vehicle 24 as described by the specific Bypass Route, or whether to direct the vehicle 24 to a holding area. This determination may be made in a variety of ways, including but not limited to: there having been immediately previously assigned a specified number of consecutive routes that were all Bypass Routes, there having been assigned immediately previously assigned to other vehicles 24 similar to the selected vehicle 24 a specified number of consecutive routes that were all Bypass Routes, the availability of a holding area, or configuration parameters dictating the eligibility for the selected 24 or vehicles like the selected vehicle 24 for being routed to a holding area. If the system controller 108 has determined that the selected vehicle 24 should be routed to a holding area, the system controller 108 will next select a holding area. In this way, if the associated configuration parameter is set to 0, a unit operation station may be configured to be ineligible to act as a holding area, even when the unit operation station is unavailable. When a vehicle 24 is directed to a holding area by the system controller 108, the system controller 108 will direct the vehicle 24 to leave the holding area after a specified amount of time so that it may again become eligible for selection to be assigned a route. Such specified amount of time may be a fixed time, a fixed time dependant on the vehicle 24 or a configuration for vehicles similar to the particular vehicle 24, a fixed time related to the selected holding area, a calculated time based on how many immediately previously assigned routes were Bypass Routes, a calculated time based on how many immediately previously assigned routes to vehicles similar to the specific vehicle 24 were Bypass Routes, determined by other means, or a combination thereof. In one particularly advantageous application of the third No Route Available Embodiment, the specified time is calculated so as to increase with each consecutive Bypass Route assigned to vehicles similar to the selected vehicle 24. For example, a first vehicle 24 assigned a Bypass Route may be directed to a holding area for 30 seconds, a second vehicle 24 similar to the first vehicle 24 assigned a Bypass Route may be directed to a holding area for 60 seconds, a third vehicle 24 similar to the first vehicle 24 assigned a Bypass Route may be directed to a holding area for 90 seconds, and so forth, up to a maximum of 300 seconds. This particularly advantageous application allows the system to be self-optimizing in its use of vehicles, particularly when there are different types of vehicles 24 in the system. For example, if vehicles of a specific type are not useful to produce the products described by currently outstanding production orders, those vehicles will automatically be directed to a holding area without operator intervention. This is advantageous to significantly reduce the extent to which vehicles 24 that are not currently engaged in producing a product obstruct vehicles that are engaged in producing products. Furthermore, in the same example, if a new production order would make use of the previously non-productive vehicles, the vehicles will automatically become eligible for route assignment within minutes, again without requiring operator intervention.

Numerous alternative embodiments of the Route Sorting Sub-Phase are possible. One alternative embodiment of the Route Sorting Sub-Phase could compute an overall route score for each route as the sum of the products of some or all of the QL, UC, NSC, VASC, and NPT metrics and a weighting factor for each metric. This embodiment would take each metric into account to degrees alterable by modifying the weighting factor associated with each metric.

So as to determine the best route for each vehicle, the route determination may consider configurations for expected time required to travel to the desired destination or the expected time required to complete operations. When the system controller observes completion of a vehicle’s movement, it may automatically cause an update to a configuration for expected time required to travel to the desired destination, or a configuration associated with the degree of variability in said time, for example a standard deviation of a set of said times observed in the past. Likewise, when the system controller observes completion of an operation, it may automatically cause an update to a configuration for the expected time required for that operation as that unit operation station, or a configuration associated with the degree of variability in said time, for example a standard deviation of a set of said times observed in the past. In this manner, the determination of a route can be self-optimizing, such that the route determination step becomes more effective with each use without requiring manual effort, and adapts to changes in system performance or unit operation station performance without manual effort.

In some embodiments, the ongoing application of the invention described herein may necessitate performing periodic maintenance tasks on the vehicles 24, or components situated thereon or otherwise coupled thereto. Such maintenance tasks may include, but not be limited to, inspecting components for damage, verifying all required components are present, cleaning components, testing seals for leaks, and the like. To alleviate the burden of manually tracking when each vehicle is due for different types of maintenance tasks, the system controller 108 may be configured with parameters describing maintenance tasks. The parameters may comprise a description of the task, location where the task is to be performed, and a frequency at which the task must be conducted on each vehicle. The frequency may be described as a time, a distance of travel for the vehicle, a number of products produced by the vehicle, or another metric or calculation, or a combination thereof. The parameters may furthermore specify which types of vehicles 24 the task is applicable to. Using such parameters, after the system controller 108 selects a vehicle to be assigned a route, the system controller 108 may be configured to determine if one or more maintenance tasks are due for the selected vehicle 24 before requesting a route from the product scheduling controller 106. If the system controller 108 is thusly configured and determines that the selected vehicle 24 is currently due for one or more maintenance tasks, the scheduling controller may direct the vehicle 24 to the appropriate location so as to have the maintenance performed, rather than requesting a route assignment for the vehicle from the product scheduling controller. Upon the arrival of a vehicle 24 at a location specified for maintenance, the system controller 108 may indicate to an operator or automated equipment the nature of the maintenance task or tasks to be performed on this vehicle. In this way, an automated system to schedule time, distance, or condition-based maintenance on vehicles may be simply implemented.

In other embodiments, it may be desirable to have the priority of production based on the desired date of delivery of the finished product to a customer or consumer.

The systems and methods described herein can provide numerous advantages. It should be understood, however, that the systems and methods in the appended claims are not required to provide any of these advantages, unless specifically incorporated into the claims.

The systems can provide virtually unlimited throughput. Thus, additional unit operation stations and vehicles can be added to grow the system to a virtually unlimited size. Since the system inherently allows more parallel vehicle travel than a system comprising a one-lane track, the risk of vehicles blocking other vehicles is lessened, so it can be planned in a way that does not need to be as considerate of the actions of all other vehicles, so that the planning algorithm scales much more efficiently. It takes a great deal more vehicles and unit operation stations to cause the planning algorithm to create a bottle neck (virtually an infinite number). The systems can enable better space utilization within a building. For example, unit operation stations can be stacked vertically. The vehicles can drive on ramps or use elevators to travel between levels to access such unit operation stations. The vehicles in the system can also carry significantly higher payloads in comparison to track systems since the vehicles move along the floor, rather than on a track that is less able to bear loads.

The systems and methods may provide better unit operation station utilization. For example, the systems and methods may be able to accommodate more unit operation stations, so that production can more closely match product orders and sales. In addition, rather than having several conventional manufacturing lines in one manufacturing plant, the more flexible system can serve the entire manufacturing plant. The systems and methods may be capable of being controlled by a simpler control algorithm in comparison to manufacturing a variety of products on a track system. This is because the vehicles can be controlled more autonomously, and may be less centrally-choreographed. The system may also be subject to fewer single points of failure since vehicles can more easily be rerouted in the event of a situation that would otherwise block production of one or more of the articles in production.

The vehicles may be provided with on-board controllers. In addition, since the vehicles are powered, their power supply can not only be used to propel the vehicles, but may also be used to power actuators on the vehicles.

The trackless system may also provide a number of advantages relative to track systems with respect to vehicle control systems. In a trackless system, space has less cost than a track- based system, since a track is not required. Since space is cheaper, it becomes less costly for vehicles to occupy space for the purpose of queueing to wait for a shared resource to become available, or waiting for vehicles carrying related products to arrive (so as to group products intended to be placed in the same container, case, pallet, etc.). Furthermore, vehicles can pass around each other, unlike the single-lane constraint of many track-based systems. So, the interactions between vehicles as they execute their route become less significant, so carefully choreographing all vehicles in a single integrated plan becomes less important. This allows implementing a less centrally-planned control system, with less processing done by a single central controller and more processing done by distributed zone and/or vehicle controllers. By distributing the processing among controllers that number in proportion to the size of the system, a large system with a large processing need would also include the large number of processors required to accommodate said processing need. Furthermore, the maximum size of the overall system is less constrained by the processing power of a single central controller. The trackless system can also reduce the cost of parking lot space for vehicles in comparison to track systems, since the vehicles can simply be parked in an area of the workspace, and sections of track do not have to be purchased to provide space for parking the vehicles.

TEST METHODS

The degree of mixing achieved by in situ mixing methods, or other mixing methods, can be determined by a digital image processing method and device for holistic evaluation of subtle irregularities in a digital image of a non-homogeneously mixed liquid product as described in PCT Patent Application Serial No. CN2017/087539 (P&G Case AA 1232F). This method comprises the following steps:

1. Extracting an area of interest from a digital image to be analyzed by excluding background areas. Specifically, when the digital image is the image of a transparent or translucent bottle that is partially filled by a liquid mixture, only the section containing the liquid mixture should be extracted, while the background areas outside of the bottle as well as the section of the bottle that does not contain the liquid mixture need to be excluded.

2. Conducting scale space analysis of the extracted area of interest to detect points of interest, i.e., extrema that each represents a local maximum or minimum, and to provide at least an intensity value and a size or scale for each point of interest. In the context of liquid mixtures, any of such points of interest with a sufficiently high intensity and/or a sufficiently large size is indicative of a significant local irregularity, i.e., evidence of poor mixing. Therefore, by selecting extrema having intensities and/or scales that are above a minimal threshold value, areas of significant local irregularities indicative of poor mixing can be readily and effectively detected.

3. Calculating a total irregularity score by summing up contributions from all local irregularities so detected. In the context of liquid mixtures, such a total irregularity score functions as a single quantitative measure for how good the mixing is, irrespective of color and luminosity variations in the liquid mixtures. This single quantitative measure allows objective comparison across liquid mixtures of different colors under very different luminosity conditions.

The foregoing description of embodiments and examples of the disclosure has been presented for purposes of illustration and description. It is not intended to be exhaustive or to limit the disclosure to the forms described. Numerous modifications are possible in light of the above teachings. Some of those modifications have been discussed and others will be understood by those skilled in the art. The embodiments were chosen and described in order to best illustrate the principles of the disclosure and various embodiments as are suited to the particular use contemplated. The scope of the disclosure is, of course, not limited to the examples or embodiments set forth herein, but can be employed in any number of applications and equivalent devices by those of ordinary skill in the art. Rather it is hereby intended the scope of the invention be defined by the claims appended hereto. Also, for any methods claimed and/or described, regardless of whether the method is described in conjunction with a flow diagram, it should be understood that unless otherwise specified or required by context, any explicit or implicit ordering of steps performed in the execution of a method does not imply that those steps must be performed in the order presented and may be performed in a different order or in parallel.

The dimensions and/or values disclosed herein are not to be understood as being strictly limited to the exact numerical dimensions and/or values recited. Instead, unless otherwise specified, each such dimension and/or value is intended to mean the recited dimension and/or value and a functionally equivalent range surrounding that dimension and/or value. For example, a dimension disclosed as“40 mm” is intended to mean“about 40 mm”.

It should be understood that every maximum numerical limitation given throughout this specification includes every lower numerical limitation, as if such lower numerical limitations were expressly written herein. Every minimum numerical limitation given throughout this specification will include every higher numerical limitation, as if such higher numerical limitations were expressly written herein. Every numerical range given throughout this specification will include every narrower numerical range that falls within such broader numerical range, as if such narrower numerical ranges were all expressly written herein.

Every document cited herein, including any cross referenced or related patent or application is hereby incorporated herein by reference in its entirety unless expressly excluded or otherwise limited. The citation of any document is not an admission that it is prior art with respect to any invention disclosed or claimed herein or that it alone, or in any combination with any other reference or references, teaches, suggests or discloses any such invention. Further, to the extent that any meaning or definition of a term in this document conflicts with any meaning or definition of the same term in a document incorporated by reference, the meaning or definition assigned to that term in this document shall govern.

While particular embodiments of the present invention have been illustrated and described, it would be obvious to those skilled in the art that various other changes and modifications can be made without departing from the spirit and scope of the invention. It is therefore intended to cover in the appended claims all such changes and modifications that are within the scope of this invention.