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Festo and Lely unveil new version of milking robot

Festo and Lely have developed the fifth generation of a milking robot – called “Astronaut A5”.

The companies say the strategic partnership between the two family-owned companies creates “technological advantages” which place them “at the forefront of robotic milking technology”.

The collaboration between Lely and Festo for nearly 20 years demonstrates how a simple customer-supplier relationship can evolve into a strategic partnership on an equal footing. 

From one product generation to the next, Lely, a leading company in dairy farm automation from the Netherlands, got Festo more and more involved in the development of the Astronaut Milking Robot project.

The hybrid robot arm was the result of a cooperative, agile project team.

lely milking robot copy

Lely says it wants to make life as easy as possible for farmers. This is why the company started automating all the work steps carried out in the cow barn, from milking to cleaning.

Lely also advises its customers on how they can cleverly organise their dairy farms with the help of management systems. Automation helps to avoid hard, monotonous work and increases output to meet the rising demand for milk products due to the growing world population.

At the same time, fewer and fewer next generation farmers are willing to accept the hard work associated with farming. Automation makes it possible to establish round-the-clock operations, enables the farmer to focus on the real changes and ensures maximum freedom for the animals.

Lely’s Astronaut A5 milking robot which was launched on the market in April 2018 was specifically developed with these objectives in mind.

Strategic business partnership

The Astronaut A5 is the result of continuous development of the earlier models Astronaut A3 and A4. And it’s precisely these different milking robot generations which shows the evolution of Festo from a component supplier to a strategic business partner.

From the first delivery of servo-pneumatic components for the Astronaut A3, Lely and Festo continued working together and developed the current solution for the robot arm of the Astronaut A5 milking robot with electric actuators and software from Festo.

Martijn Boelens, vice president customer solutions at Lely, says: “Just like Lely, Festo is an internationally active family-owned company which focuses on long-term responsibility instead of short-term profits. When it comes to product development we have a similar approach.”

But getting back to the milking process itself: when a cow enters the milking stanchion, it is identified and the management software decides if the cow is ready to be milked. If it is, the milking process starts.

Each cow wears a small transmitter chip on which data such as size, weight, recommended feed quantity and last milking time are saved.

Arnoud Nieuwdorp, global key account manager at Festo, says: “The fact that the cow barn is an extremely adverse environment has to be taken into consideration. In addition, you also have to remember the fact that the cows will occasionally kick the milking robot’s arm.”

Energy-efficient electric actuators

The hybrid arm in the Astronaut A5 is set into motion by two electric cylinders ESBF from Festo and a customised, horizontal toothed belt axis. With its smooth surfaces and in clean look design, the ESBF is easy to clean, making it less susceptible to contamination.

The actuators are powered by customised EMCA motors.

The complete EMCA solution for positioning the electromechanical drives and controlling format changeovers consists of a maintenance and wear-free EC motor, as well as a motor controller including power electronics.

This avoids long motor cables, improves electromagnetic compatibility and reduces installation effort and space requirements.

Valve terminals type VTUB-12 valve terminals control the process valves for the milking process.

Nieuwdorp says: “Compared to the servo-pneumatic and hybrid predecessor models, namely Astronaut A3 and A4, the electrically actuated powered robot arm has clear advantages.

“Its motion is gentler, and it’s more energy-efficient and faster because it requires 30 percent less time to place the teat cups on the cow. And installation time is also reduced thanks to the use of quick connectors.

Dr Jan Bredau, head of systems engineering at Festo headquarters in Esslingen, Germany, says: “Operating and maintenance costs, and thus the total cost of ownership, are lower as well.”

Software from Festo

The mechatronics solution developed by Lely and Festo doesn’t work without software.

Boelens says: “We take advantage of Festo’s know-how so that we can concentrate on our core areas of expertise for the development of the overall Astronaut system.”

Nieuwdorp says: “We were able to involve the application software team from the System Solutions division at Festo headquarters in Esslingen; they developed the motion software for the fully automated milking robot.”

Bredau says: “The application software team creates software modules that aren’t only suitable for fulfilling the specific requirements of customer projects, but can also be used again for other projects.”

Application software is implemented using function blocks, libraries or sample programs. The focus is on the CodeSys language specified by IEC61131-3, and Festo control systems. The team simulates the software functions with Matlab Simulink.

The experience gained from the milking robot’s complex motion task, for example using SoftMotion, is being integrated into other software libraries.

Bredau says: “The benefit for our customer is that motion sequences can be easily configured via an intuitive customer interface without any programming knowledge.”

Trend towards digitalisation

The collaboration between Lely and Festo will continue. Future trends like “Farm 4.0” and “Farm of the Future” are based on Lely’s T4C management system (Time for Cows), which provides cow-specific information about health and fertility, as well as milk production quantity and quality, for feed suppliers and veterinarians.

New topics which are being discussed include condition monitoring and predictive maintenance as Lely intends to drastically reduce its service costs with these concepts.