Robots are crucial to the always-on supply chain

Mobile robots speed material flow to fulfillment workstations and between manufacturing processes and help consolidate storage space and future-proof operations. Robotic mobility leads to traceability and predictability on the road to Industrie 4.0 and is crucial to developing a supply chain that never stops.

By Tanya M. Anandan January 19, 2017

The time between click to buy and the doorstep, or dock, is measured in hours. And customers always want it faster and cheaper. There’s no time to spare. If you don’t deliver, your competitors will.

The supply chain never sleeps. Neither do robots.

Mobile robots speed material flow to fulfillment workstations and between manufacturing processes. They cut picking errors and boost throughput. They help consolidate storage space and future-proof operations. Robots offset rising labor costs and shortages. They improve ergonomics and make better use of your skilled workforce. Robotic mobility leads to traceability and predictability on the road to Industrie 4.0. This is the road to the always-on supply chain.

The 2016 MHI Annual Industry Report charts the emergence of the “digital, always-on supply chain.” Nearly 900 industry executives were surveyed. The study found that 51% of respondents consider robotics and automation a competitive advantage or disruptive technology. At the same time, 58% see hiring and retaining a skilled workforce to implement these technologies as a major hurdle. Suppliers need reliable, cost-effective, plug-and-play solutions. A host of new robotics startups and established players are delivering the goods.

The Amazon effect

When Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012, they gained a competitive advantage with robotics. Patent filings have kept that technology in Amazon’s court in the U.S. However, the CarryPick system in Europe works similarly.

The modular CarryPick goods-to-person system uses low-profile robot vehicles (AGVs guided by QR codes on the floor) to drive underneath mobile racks and deliver them to workstations. From there, workers pick and place the requested items in shipping boxes. See Swisslog’s CarryPick system in action at global logistics company DB Schenker.

The AGV Carrier used in the CarryPick system is the result of joint development between Swisslog and German company Grenzebach. Indian startup GreyOrange has a similar system with a fleet of “Butler” robots that deliver shelves of goods to manned pick stations.

Some say that Amazon’s Kiva acquisition set the industry back by removing advanced technology from the market, while others say the move may have actually spurred more innovation. The array of automation technologies vying for your factory, warehouse, and distribution center (DC) intralogistics is multiplying.

Self-driving vehicles

Today, robots cost less and are easier to use. While the current adoption rate is at 35%, according to MHI, the rate of robotics and automation adoption is expected to rise to 74% within 6 to 10 years. For many DCs and manufacturers, just finding enough workers is a major challenge and one of the main drivers of rising robot deployment.

“The major driver for our customers is labor shortage. We have a number of customers who find it extremely difficult to hire and retain enough people to run their facility and support their growth,” says Simon Drexler, Director of Industrial Solutions at Otto Motors in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

Otto Motors is the industrial division of Clearpath Robotics Inc. While Clearpath is best known for its unmanned vehicles for researchers, including the award-winning Husky, Grizzly, and Kingfisher robots, the Otto Motors division focuses on self-driving vehicles for the manufacturing and warehouse space.

Sometimes called self-driving vehicles, all of the robots in this space share some common characteristics even though their form factors and payload capacities vary greatly. Self-driving vehicles or autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are often distinguished from automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Traditional AGVs typically require some type of existing infrastructure or facility modifications, whether they are magnetic strips or navigational beacons embedded in the floor, to guide the vehicles on a designated path. They work well in predictable environments.

“If you’re always moving materials directly from point A to point B and those points never change, and the path between those points never changes, then an AGV is a good platform,” Drexler said. “But that type of environment applies to a very small percentage of the material transport market.”

By contrast, self-driving vehicles (SDVs) or AMRs navigate like GPS in your car. The SDV navigates according to maps in its robotic brain, and by using various sensors, it avoids and steers around unexpected obstacles. It autonomously determines the best route or path to get from point A to point B with real-time intelligence.

“One of the challenges that our clients have expressed with traditional AGV technology is that each time a change is required in their facility, and therefore their AGV system, it’s a painful process,” Drexler said. “You have to change the track and then you have to change the programs. Usually it’s a week before the AGV system is up and running again. With SDV technology and the intelligence that’s built into these vehicles, you can literally make a change with a click of a button. You can reduce one week’s worth of effort into 10 minutes.”

SDVs allow for changes and flexibility in building layouts, new machinery installations, and facility additions.

“Self-driving vehicles enable new applications to be automated because of the level of flexibility they offer within industrial environments,” Drexler said. “By not requiring any infrastructure to navigate, the solution is able to grow and change with your organization.”

Ready for Industrie 4.0

The secret behind the autonomous navigation of these self-driving vehicles is the software. It’s the sensors that make robots perceptive and it’s the algorithms that make them smart.

“The software is the most important component of the system,” Drexler said. “That’s the intelligence in the self-driving vehicle.”

He describes Otto’s three primary software platforms: “You have the core, the Clearpath OS, which is the brain of the vehicle. You have the fleet manager, which tells the vehicles what to do. And then you have the Clearpath app, which is the user interface for system status updates and key performance indicators.”

Drexler said mobile robots like Otto are already primed for Industrie 4.0 implementation. Smart robots lead to a smart factory.

“When you control material flow inside a facility, you have access to almost 100 percent of critical operational data. Industrie 4.0 is all about the consumption and analysis of operational data. That’s really what’s driving the interconnection of devices.”

He provides an analogy: “Imagine a manufacturing process. It doesn’t matter what the manufacturing process is, it’s a black box. I put parts into it, something happens, and parts come out. If I know when I bring materials to that black box and when I pick them up from the back end, I know where all my inventory is. I know the cycle time of the production cell. I know when it’s up and when it’s down. I know how many units I’ve produced and my quality rate.

“The Otto system is a springboard to help people implement Industry 4.0 into their facility, because it gives you access to almost all critical operational data,” he continues. “Otto is automating the inputs and the outputs of those processes, so it is a major leap forward in closing the automation loop inside of industrial centers. By closing the automation loop, you get more traceability, more predictability, and more control of your process.”

Autonomous mobile robotics

The MiR100 autonomous mobile robot, designed by Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), has a 100-kg payload capacity, and depending on the load, can run 10 to 15 hours on a single charge. An exclusive option, the MiR100 Hook (pictured) can tow carts up to 300 kg and fully automates pickup and delivery of carts in any configuration.

“Whether it’s transporting drawers, or boxes, or components, or even food, there are just endless applications for it,” continues Mullen. “I’ve been contacted by airports looking to automate wheelchairs between gates. I’ve been contacted by hotels, hospitals, logistics centers, labs, automotive, aerospace manufacturing. Electronics has huge industry potential.”

He encourages people to look at what’s happening in their facilities from a material transfer perspective.

“Think about how much time is invested by people moving product around. If the building is big enough where it takes a person three hours a day out of his 8-hour shift to move parts around, you can see how the robot makes sense.”

Intelligent navigation

MiR’s technology relies on two laser scanners, front and back, for a 360-deg view. It also has eight ultrasonic sensors and a 3-D depth-sensing camera (similar to the Microsoft Kinect sensor) to aid in navigation. A gyroscope helps with vehicle orientation, especially on inclines or uneven surfaces.

“The difficult part of implementing these kinds of vehicles into a factory is that the environment is always changing. You always have forklifts, boxes and machinery being moved around,” Mullen said. “That’s always been the challenge with existing AMRs is they can’t successfully navigate on a daily basis without running into obstacles they can’t resolve. The way our technology operates with deployments of multiple sensory inputs allows us to make good decisions in real-time dynamic environments.”

An onboard Linux-based PC runs all those decision-making algorithms. Warehouse or factory 2-D layouts can be uploaded as STEP or CAD files. Mullen says you can put the file on a USB stick and load it into the robot.

The mobile robot can also “learn” the environment it will be working in by driving it around your facility.

“The laser scanners on the robot will build the walls, the aisleways, and the machinery, and create its own map that resides inside the robot,” Mullen said. “Once a robot has a map, you can teach it pickup and drop-off points, and then it will look at those maps and figure out the best way to get between two points. Now if something impedes the path, it will recognize that and reroute itself to get to that drop-off point in a different manner.”

Mullen said MiR has over 100 robots operating in facilities across Europe. With its recent North American launch in April, MiR expects to sell 150 to 200 mobile robots in 2016.

“I’ve been in a couple dozen facilities now demoing the robot,” Mullen said. “I can have a map of a typical warehouse loaded with points taught in under 15 minutes. Even someone with no robotics experience can open up his iPhone, connect to the robot, and begin creating maps and points right out of the box.

“We have a fleet software package that quarterbacks all the robots that are being used in a facility. It knows where they are and what robot is located in the best position based on what task comes up on the fleet package. It can monitor battery levels and direct robots to charging docks.”

Like other autonomous mobile robots, the MiR system is ready for Industrie 4.0 and an interconnected supply chain.

“The fleet package resides on a company LAN,” Mullen said. “We can collect data from bar codes, QR codes, or sensory input. We can import all of that data and have the fleet system make decisions based on that data.”

For example, a robot could be autonomously dispatched when inventory levels get low to keep production lines running.

Safe human-robot collaboration

Another characteristic of self-driving vehicles and AMRs is their ability to work in safe collaboration with people. Much like stationary collaborative robots in all their different form factors, mobile collaborative robots are designed to operate alongside human coworkers, in this case sharing walkways and aisles, avoiding oncoming traffic, and maneuvering around working machinery and busy operators.

Autonomous mobile robots have been in the logistics space longer than you may realize. Less land mass, densely populated regions, and higher labor costs may explain why European nations have led development in a segment of mobile robotics for more than a decade.

Robotic carriers, goods-to-person

This category of autonomous mobile robots looks very different from the former batch of warehouse runners. These robotic carriers work in compact swarms. A frenzy of efficiency, these robots are not as free-ranging as the previous set, but they certainly outnumber them.

Take, for example, the AutoStore system made by Norwegian company Hatteland and sold through international distributors and integrators of logistics automation such as Bastian Solutions and Swisslog. Typically up to 60 or 80 of these transport robots work together, but separately, to retrieve storage bins and traverse an elevated grid system to deliver goods to manned picking stations.

“The big difference is that each AutoStore robot is able to deliver each bin to each station,” said Kirt Laeske, product manager robotic solutions, Swisslog AG. “This makes AutoStore more flexible,” he added, contrasting these robotic carriers with traditional warehouse technology such as stacker cranes that restrict shuttles to defined aisles.

Swisslog is part of Kuka AG, along with sister division Kuka Robotics. Acting as a single source supplier, Swisslog builds warehouses and distribution centers primarily for the retail, automotive, pharmaceutical, and food and beverage industries. In addition to integrating conventional industrial robots for depalletizing roles in distribution centers, Swisslog integrates various types of mobile robots, including the AutoStore system, for customized warehouse and order fulfillment solutions.

“In a big DC you normally have 80 to 120 workers per shift,” Laeske said. “A big part of the decision-making process for our solutions is first of all the investment, but then the running cost. If you can help with robotic solutions to reduce the workers, so they only need 40 to 60 instead of 80 to 120 workers, this has a big influence on the running cost of a DC over 10 years. This is what our customers are looking for.”

Tanya M. Anandan is contributing editor for the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and Robotics Online. RIA is a not-for-profit trade association dedicated to improving the regional, national and global competitiveness of the North American manufacturing and service sectors through robotics and related automation. This article originally appeared on the RIA website. The RIA is a part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3). A3 is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

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Author Bio: Contributing editor, Association for Advancing Automation (A3).