Intelligent transport vehicles

Lots of the ideas from Industry 4.0 are already being implemented in state-of-the-art, fully automated logistics centres. They are quite inflexible and struggle to handle change, however. A new conveyor truck offers a remedy.

In-house logistics is without doubt one of the areas in which the ideas underpinning Industry 4.0 are already in most widespread use: goods, work centres and load carriers such as pallets and containers are fully interconnected. Technologies such as barcode labels enable pallets and the articles on them to be uniquely identified, so the warehouse management system “knows” exactly where articles are currently located, and in what quantities. Incoming purchase orders and subsequent order confirmations are handled automatically, with orders being passed on to the relevant operational departments. Materials handling systems provide the picking-and-packing staff with the articles needed to fulfil an order, appropriately sequenced as necessary. Light signals or monitor displays indicate exactly how many of which articles need to be picked. The warehouse management system continuously monitors all the processes involved and logs all article movements. The Internet plays a key role. Customers order their goods online, often also incorporating the upstream supply chain – in many cases including manufacture and assembly. All the parties involved are able to track product features and availability and monitor the status of an order in real time. The data stream controls highly complex automated goods movements in order to fulfil orders and ship them to their recipients.

Industry 4.0 demands flexible transport options

However, transport procedures are currently still reliant either on “immobile” materials handling systems such as conveyor belts – or on people, such as forklift truck drivers, who have the necessary flexibility to handle a wide variety of different transport tasks. Even state-of-the-art driverless transport systems can only operate on pre-programmed routes. By contrast, the CubeXX system from Still offers the flexibility essential to Industry 4.0: though still a research project, the prototype demonstrates how materials handling in the Smart Factory of the future might look. The system is able to assume different forms based on a modular design, enabling it to transport loads as a low-lift or high-lift pallet truck, a picker or a forklift, for example.

The truck is aware of its surroundings

With its extensive sensor and scanner technology, the system becomes an interactive robot, capable of analysing its immediate vicinity and responding appropriately to any obstacles in its way or unexpected events. A laser scanner enables the CubeXX to determine its own position based on pre-determined orientation points, for example, and analyse its immediate vicinity in three dimensions. Still Corporate Communications Manager Matthias Klug explains: “The new innovations will enable the CubeXX to respond flexibly to changing situations, adapting its hardware and software so as to pick up pallets where they are actually located rather than where they were supposed to be, for example.” Nicola Magrone, Sales Manager of another of the companies involved in the project, Sick, adds: “Industry 4.0 poses new challenges to sensors. For machines to communicate with machines, sensors need to be one thing above all else: intelligent.”

Control by app or over the Internet

To provide flexible operation of entire fleets in large-scale logistics centres, the truck can also be controlled using a new beermat-sized universal Smart Device rather than on a tablet. The “Coaster” developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML will make the CubeXX highly user-friendly and cost-effective to operate. The app installed on the Coaster – likewise developed in conjunction with Fraunhofer IML – communicates both with the warehouse management system and with the truck’s robotics system. This means staff can receive an order while the Coaster calls the nearest available CubeXX and configures it as needed to handle the job. The Smart Device, slimmed down to the essential functionality, features a high-definition camera and is able to detect barcodes, machines and people. This enables it to scan products, storage bays and destination containers during picking-and-packing operations, for example.
The CubeXX can also receive and autonomously process transport jobs directly from a Cloud-based ERP solution. Using the supplied data indicating the type, location, quantity, weight or size of the articles to be picked, it can automatically transform into the appropriate handling system, such as a pallet truck or forklift.

(picture credits: STILL)

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