Logistics revolution: Transport Robots

Thanks to autonomous navigation, transport robots inside factories and production facilities are now becoming as versatile and flexible as a human solution.

The ability to navigate autonomously will revolutionise the world of in-house logistics. That’s what the market analysts at IDTechEx say, anyway. “Automated guided vehicles barely made a dent in this industry. This is because their navigational rigidity put a low ceiling on their total market scope,” says Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Research Director at IDTechEx. “Autonomous mobile robots are radically different, however, because they will ultimately enable automation to largely keep the flexibility and versatility of human-operated vehicles.” It is his opinion that mobile robotics in material handling and logistics will become a 75 billion dollar market by 2027. It will then more than double by 2038.

Immediate increase in productivity

We are still very much in the starting phase. Mobile robots are still relatively expensive. However, there are already some examples of practical applications. A Jungheinrich APM (Auto Pallet Mover) has been in use at Hero España, a Spanish manufacturer of baby food and jams, since 2011. The APM is a standard high-level order picker or pallet truck that has been modified with an automation package, transportation control software and a personal protection system. The vehicle transports pallets made ready in the automated warehouse to the picking stations and from there to the dispatch area. While the vehicle is in motion, a rotating laser scans the surrounding area, using reflectors that are positioned along the route to determine the exact position of the Auto Pallet Mover. The layout of the warehouse and the routes taken by the vehicle can be changed in a matter of minutes without having to adjust the reflectors. Sensors on the forks also enable the pallets to be picked up or set down up to a height of two metres in autonomous mode. Juan Francisco García Gambín, Warehouse Manager at Hero España: “Since the Jungheinrich APM was commissioned, the increase in productivity has been noticeable from the very first day as a result of the autonomy with which the machine carries out its tasks.” Soon after the system was commissioned, Hero España started to notice higher efficiency levels in its intra-logistical processes as well as a marked reduction in errors associated with goods-in, goods transfer and dispatch tasks.

Transport robots are a milestone in digitalisation

Mobile robots are also being used for transportation purposes at the BMW plant in Wackersdorf, Germany. Ten of these Smart Transport Robots move components around in warehousing and production. Able to measure the distance to wireless transmitters and equipped with an accurate digital map of the production hall, the robot can calculate its exact position and this route to its destination. The battery-powered transmitters are mounted on the walls of the hall. The solution is flexible and can be extended to other logistics areas relatively inexpensively. The vehicle’s sensors also enable it to identify and respond to critical situations so that it can share the route with human personnel and other vehicles. A future phase of development will see the introduction of a 3D camera system to make navigation even more accurate. “The development of the Smart Transport Robot is an important milestone for the BMW Group when it comes to digitalisation and autonomisation in production logistics. This innovation project makes an important contribution to the agility of the supply chain in logistics and production. It enables the supply chain to adapt to changing external conditions quickly and flexibly,” comments Dr Dirk Dreher, Vice President of Foreign Supply at the BMW Group.

Despite Transport Robots: Challenging tasks are the preserve of human beings

Tobias Zierhut, Head of Product Management Warehouse Trucks at Linde Material Handling, believes that warehouse workers will benefit too: “In the future, automated vehicles will be able to take over simple tasks that are repeated at regular intervals. This will enable human personnel to concentrate on more challenging and complex tasks.” Since 2015, Linde Material Handling has been working in close collaboration with Balyo, a French robotics specialist, on developing and producing automated vehicles. The vehicles do not rely on reflectors, induction cables or magnets installed in the warehouse. As part of the installation process, a map of the area in which the vehicles will be used is created. This information is transferred to the vehicle, which automatically positions itself using invisible laser-controlled geonavigation.

Stocktaking with a drone

Balyo and Linde have also developed a drone to be used for stocktaking in warehouses. Approximately 50 centimetres wide, equipped with six rotors, a camera, a barcode scanner and a telemeter, the “Flybox” stocktaking drone slowly makes its way up the front of each individual rack, taking a photo of every pallet storage location and capturing the barcodes of the stored goods. “The decisive new feature of this invention is that we use the drone together with an autonomous industrial truck,” says Zierhut. During its stocktaking mission, the drone is guided by an automated pallet stacker. The two vehicles are connected via a self-adjusting cable. With this innovative coupling, Linde has resolved two challenges that have hitherto impeded the use of drones in warehouses: power supply on one hand (drone batteries usually only last 15 minutes), and the localisation under the hall roof without GPS reception on the other.

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