How automation storage and retrieval systems will shape the future of distribution operations

OPEX discusses the importance of EtherCAT and safety technology in optimizing its scalable, high-performance system.

By Doug Schuchart May 29, 2023
Courtesy: OPEX


Learning Objectives

  • Learn how effective traffic management and real-time communications among warehousing system robotics are enabled via EtherCAT.
  • Learn how a compact industrial automation safety controller allows Infinity’s storage grid to be separated into multiple zones, each of which can be deactivated while others continue operation.

AS/RS Insights:

  • Ongoing labor shortages and the rising cost of warehouse real estate have led to increased adoption of automation technologies among logistics providers.
  • To more rapidly route orders, fulfillment software can use past order information to help predict future orders, buffer and slot inventory to keep products moving.
  • Scalability remains a challenge, with many smaller companies feeling it could take years to achieve a positive ROI without suitably modular, flexible and scalable technologies.

Among the many intralogistics software and technology products available, the automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) has become a staple. Companies of all sizes and industries rely on AS/RS to enable modern warehousing and fulfillment. OPEX released its Infinity system at MODEX 2022. This next-generation goods-to-person (G2P) system is said to offer top-tier storage density, modularity and flexibility. Using wireless Infinity iBOT robotic vehicles, triple-deep tote storage and the OPEX Cortex software platform, Infinity delivers the right SKU to the right workstation every time, increasing storage capacity by 35% while making bot paths up to 65% more efficient.

Beckhoff spoke with Monty McVaugh, OPEX manager of product management, to explore Infinity technical differences. The EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system and other automation technologies play an important role in meeting OPEX fulfillment requirements with sustainability in mind.

Why are AS/RS solutions in such high demand?

Monty McVaugh: There are several aspects to consider. First, ongoing labor shortages and rising labor costs mean companies need to leverage their existing workforce efficiently and safely. This means they are not continually walking the warehouse aisles and climbing ladders to manually pick parts, which leads to burnout. Second, the cost of warehouse real estate is at an all-time high, so companies need to optimize how they use each square foot. Next, inventory security is critical, especially in industries like pharmaceuticals — robotic technologies, including AS/RS, solve these challenges. Finally, with clear value-add benefits from automation, more companies are investing in technology before prices increase or they fall behind the competition.

What AS/AR technology market trends?

MM: One key initiative is optimizing order fulfillment logic and capabilities in addition to control software. The objective is to funnel orders rapidly. Once consumers click “purchase” on the e-commerce site, the order should be picked and shipped out in under 15 minutes. Many companies are focused on workstation ergonomics. From a fulfillment software perspective, using past order information helps predict orders, buffer and slot inventory to keep products from sitting in the AS/RS. For other companies, shipping orders in under 15 minutes means deploying robotic picking and palletizing solutions. Labor resources shift to quality control or retrain for more skilled tasks.

But scaling these solutions still presents a major challenge, regardless of the company’s size. Many of customers believe operations are too small to automate, so think a positive ROI will take years, particularly for large, complex systems. With increasing labor costs, that ROI equation makes more sense. OPEX prioritized making a modular, scalable and flexible system with Infinity to help make people more comfortable with the investment. We incorporated customer feedback to [enable] infinite configurations, settings, options and more.

How is the Infinity system different from other AS/RS offerings?

MM: In traditional AS/RS, shuttles travel horizontally on a set row, and they bring inventory to an elevator. In contrast, the Infinity iBOTs have access to all inventory in the storage grid, because they can travel in X, Y and Z coordinates. And unlike others on the market, our iBOTs can leave the storage grid to bring the inventory to detached workstations. Decoupling these stations from the AS/RS structure offers greater flexibility. For example, the iBOT could bring the tote or case to a pick-and-place robot for palletizing.

Infinity is not a traditional AS/RS. It offers new dimensions of operational freedom that help users adapt to changing consumer demands or business requirements.

What were the biggest technical challenges when creating the iBOTs?

MM: Traffic management and communication to the iBOTs in real-time are the two most challenging aspects of the system. The ability to plan the shortest path and optimize the traffic route around other iBOTs is a differentiator for OPEX. Our software predicts the moves that bots will make 10 steps ahead and updates routes in real-time for peak efficiency.

How important is EtherCAT to achieve real-time performance?

MM: Many system elements, even at the iBOT level, require the real-time communication of EtherCAT. The traffic controller and hundreds of bots exchange packets and messages over Wi-Fi. Also, receiving data from individual system modules — such as the bots or conveyance equipment — helps us manage alerts, events and logs, then send that information to our cloud for analytics.

Using EtherCAT, the system does this in milliseconds. That is critical for Infinity’s functionality. OPEX is a member of the EtherCAT Technology Group (ETG), and we’ve developed our own EtherCAT devices to meet specific needs. Not having the determinism, flexibility and openness of EtherCAT would shackle our ability to innovate.

What advantages does Safety over EtherCAT (FSoE) offer?

MM: Without FSoE, our safety architecture would be outdated and expensive. We divide Infinity’s storage grid into “multi-zone safety zones,” and the iBOTs constantly communicate location. Using the compact safety controller, we can shut down individual zones when a safety gate on the perimeter fence is opened. But the unaffected zones can continue running, which ensures high availability.

Networking safety devices via EtherCAT helps us establish a central command center, streamlines documentation and allows customers to reconfigure or expand systems with ease. The safety controller supports modularity; you can easily add more I/O to the terminal unlike other safety PLCs that require excess hardware and redundancy additions. FSoE is key to obtaining certifications for international Infinity deployments.

OPEX launched the Infinity AS/RS as a next-generation G2P system. It uses Safety over EtherCAT (FSoE), an EK1960 TwinSAFE Compact Controller, EP7402 EtherCAT Box and TwinCAT automation software from Beckhoff Automation. Courtesy: OPEX.

OPEX launched the Infinity AS/RS as a next-generation G2P system. It uses Safety over EtherCAT (FSoE), an EK1960 TwinSAFE Compact Controller, EP7402 EtherCAT Box and TwinCAT automation software from Beckhoff Automation. Courtesy: OPEX.

How does the system EP7402 EtherCAT Box optimize control of motor-driven roller (MDR) conveyors on the AS/RS?

MM: The OPEX G2P system supports automated options to convey cases and totes to the operator. The controller selected delivers a plug-and-play solution to scale our conveyance capabilities. Because of the flexibility of EtherCAT, we can easily add a 6-foot section, for example. Conveyance controls, using the same software that routes the box on Infinity, can route containers on homegrown and third-party conveyors via EtherCAT and the controller.

What resources helped in designing and launching the Infinity system?

MM: Regarding technology, having access to and time to learn the automation software has been extremely valuable. We can easily configure the safety systems in the automation software platform, then make changes as the application evolves.

On the business side, we started developing Infinity during the pandemic, and despite ongoing supply chain challenges, the automation provider’s customer service has delivered a positive experience. We greatly value having a direct point of contact at the company, rather than going through a distributor and having information slowly filter down.

How are you continuing to enhance the Infinity system’s performance and reliability?

MM: We leverage invariance and selectivity machine learning algorithms on all the data we send to the cloud. That can include events and logs from the bots, conveyance and other equipment as well as performance indicators at operator stations. Behind the scenes, the system gathers data and generates reports based on those datasets to give us trend analysis. As such, we can study and model system performance, boost reliability, increase mean time to failure and schedule maintenance.

The data might also tell us to flash an update on the control panel at certain intervals. For example, to make operators more alert and increase their performance. By gathering as much data as possible through fast EtherCAT communication, we learn from machines and subsystems to determine which aspects deserve a closer look.

OPEX: Sustainably driving warehouse automation

OPEX supplies warehouse automation and document and mail automation. The company counts 48 companies in the Fortune 100 as customers. With more than 1,600 employees across five continents, OPEX has grown since its founding in 1973 as a mail automation equipment supplier, primarily for Columbia Records. Al Stevens purchased the company in 1975, and now three generations of the Stevens family serve in leadership.

Based in Moorestown, New Jersey, OPEX maintains offices in Plano, Texas, along with Australia, England, Ireland, France, Switzerland and, most recently, Germany. The company has committed to energy-efficiency and sustainability, including powering manufacturing facilities with solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.

Doug Schuchart, global material handling and intralogistics manager, Beckhoff Automation. Edited by David Miller, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,


Keywords: AS/RS, intralogistics


DHL Supply Chain announced a $15 million investment in robotics solutions from Boston Dynamics to further automate warehousing in North America.

ProMat 2023: Intralogistics, software and motion in focus


How can you guarantee scalability when implementing new automation technologies into a logistics operation?

Author Bio: Doug Schuchart, Material Handling & Intralogistics Manager, Beckhoff Automation LLC