Autonomous consignment

Linking smart technologies with established structures is giving rise to completely new fields of application and efficiency potentials

The orange-coloured vehicle stirs into motion with a soft whirr. Shortly afterwards, the next vehicles set off, and it isn’t long before dozens of mini-transporters are moving about the warehouse. As if steered by some ghostly hand, they head for the high-bay storage racks or rotate about their own axis. The small, driverless transport vehicles are doing their duty in the service of science: at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Dortmund, scientists are working to improve the logistical flow of materials and goods in warehouses using the swarm intelligence observed in ants. In the future, the transport systems will carry out all tasks independently, from the removal from the shelf through to delivery to a picking-and-packing station. The alternative to conventional conveyor technology solutions is more flexible and easier to adapt to fluctuations in demand.

Complete transparency in real time

As yet, the practical use of these mini robots in real life is still just a dream for the future. Yet smart technologies of this kind are increasingly used in logistics. Already today, cyber-physical logistics systems combine different mobile and embedded logistics elements. Components in a logistics chain of this nature can act together or act autonomously and ultimately link the virtual world with the physical world. This is associated with completely new possibilities for generating and using information – logistics processes experience transparency of a kind that has hitherto been impossible to realise. “A real-time overview of the entire supply chain is a vision that everyone in the logistics field will certainly want to see happen. When products, systems and machines provide real-time data, complete transparency is a given,” explains Hans Thalbauer, Senior Vice President for Extended Supply Chain Management at SAP.

Modules for smart logistics components

Realising this vision requires high-performance information and communications equipment. One of the most important basic functions is the automatic identification of logistics components. By giving objects unique identities, their movements and status changes can be tracked automatically. Nowadays, bar codes and radio frequency identification are used in particular. In addition to an object’s identity, it is also essential for logistics processes to know its location. Use is made in this regard of a wide variety of technologies: GPS-based solutions, systems with stereo cameras that can “keep an eye on” a number of objects, just like the human eye, or procedures that use smart antennae and wireless communication networks to determine position. Added to that, there are large numbers of sensors that make up wireless sensor networks and monitor the status – temperature, shocks and much more – of the object or goods. To transfer the data, the components are also equipped with communication modules using technologies such as Wi-Fi, ZigBee or Bluetooth.

Market-ready solutions are already in use

Logistics components equipped in this way are already available today: take, for example, the iBin developed by Würth. It independently monitors stock levels inside the bin and automatically triggers orders. The quantity, number and ordering information for the item can be obtained at bin level via the built-in camera; this is then transmitted to the materials management system at Würth Industrie Service.
Small representatives of the autonomous vehicle are also in service within logistics, for instance the Shuttle produced by the Austrian company Ylog. The vehicles are used in warehouse and transport logistics. With their on-board navigation system, they calculate and navigate through the rack system independently.

The flying inventory assistant

The use of drones may well still be a dream for the future, but scientists are already working on it: in the InventAIRy project at IML, researchers are developing autonomous flying robots that are capable of independently navigating and conducting inventory at the touch of a button. These flying assistants are designed to locate objects both inside warehouses and in the exterior area, and to track by means of bar codes and RFID chips. The robot detects how the warehouse is configured using motion and camera sensors, for instance, and can orient itself within the warehouse. GPS determines its position outside. In addition, the robot records the content of the stored items. The scientists accomplish this with the aid of optical sensors or radio sensors. “We take a look at various key problems at the same time: robustly designed, lightweight flying robots that can reliably recognise their surroundings, as well as intelligent software for their route planning and coordination,” explains the project leader, Marco Freund. “To ensure this solution is also appealing to small and medium-sized enterprises, we intentionally dispensed with the installation of an expensive local infrastructure that the robots can use to orient themselves.” The researchers want to accomplish this with the aid of intelligent algorithms. The flying objects are to prepare maps of the warehouse on a fully automated basis, and independently modify them if there are any changes. The basis for this are, for example, ultrasound sensors, 3D cameras, and laser scanners.
These are just a few examples of how combining smart future technologies with existing logistics structures and processes can give rise to completely new fields of application and efficiency potentials in logistics. In this way, future value-added processes will be even more integrated, faster, more efficient, more flexible, more robust and more customer-oriented.

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