Robots becoming more independent and autonomous

Robot companies are working on making robots work together in teams as well as programming them so they have the freedom to operate on the plant floor with human or robotic assistance.

01/23/2017


With swarms of these robots working together but separately, the system can determine which robot is in the best position to retrieve the next bin in an order at any given time. Downtime is virtually eliminated because there’s always another robot nearby if one gets stuck or needs to recharge its batteries. Battery charging is also autonomous.

This autonomy comes from sophisticated fleet management software.

“Think of it as two brains,” said Joe Zoghzoghy, mobile robotics manager for Bastian Solutions LLC, a global material handling and robotic systems integrator based in Indianapolis. “One big brain is controlling all the robots and each robot has a smaller brain that is communicating back and forth. The autonomy is coming from the bigger brain, which is the master control or warehouse control system, and that is coordinating the moves (among each robotic transport vehicle). Then you have smaller brains on the vehicles that are handling the low-level control, for example driving and navigating.”

That’s the swarm effect. The smaller-brained mobile robots are coordinating with each other and with the bigger brain to accomplish certain tasks. The Perfect Pick goods-to-person system by New Jersey-based Opex Corporation exhibits a similar swarm effect. The robotic delivery vehicle called iBOT works in like-minded swarms to deliver bins of goods to manned order fulfillment stations.

Bastian’s director of advanced technology, Derek Cribley, said that with the variety of autonomous robotic carrier systems on the market, each has its strengths and advantages. Criteria range from different transfer rates and payload capacities, to different storage densities. Bastian works with their customers to select the best technologies for their particular solution. He says the latest generation of robotic transport vehicle systems offer even more flexibility and efficiency.

“The Servus system is an Austrian company,” Cribley said. “They already have 15 to 20 systems installed in Europe. We’re now implementing the first two systems going into the U.S. market. The Servus system was the first one that I’ve seen that was able to work inside and outside of an aisle. It has the ability to do not just automated storage retrieval, but also probably replace other technologies like conveying systems or transfer vehicles to bring the product more directly to the work area.”

Robotic vehicle delivers product to operator in apparel e-retailer's order fulfillment center. Courtesy: Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Bastian Solutions, LLCThe heart of the Servus system is the autonomous robotic carrier (ARC), which can leave the aisle and follow curved tracks around the warehouse facility. It can even be outfitted with an onboard robotic arm for item picking while on the fly. 

Cribley is especially intrigued by this idea. “It can be performing work while it’s transporting at the same time. You can really reduce your cycle time.”

Bastian is taking that idea several steps further and working on prototypes for combining six-axis industrial robotic arms onto high-payload mobile robots. More on this next-gen solution later.

Robot-assisted picking

An intralogistics solution teams humans with industrial robots, enabling direct cooperation between man and machine with no safety fence required. automated item pick (AIP) combines Swisslog’s automated goods-to-person warehouse systems, such as CarryPick and AutoStore, with a robot picking station to assist human workers with picking tasks. Robot picking is performed by a Kuka LBR iiwa robot arm mounted on a mobile platform (flexFellow) that is manually wheeled into position at the picking station.

“We have everything integrated into one station and we can put it into an existing workstation designed for human picking,” said Kirt Laeske, product manager robotic solutions, Swisslog AG. “Just plug this in where a person is standing to help him do his work.”

The process starts with a robotic carrier retrieving a bin and delivering it to the picking station. Each bin has three or four compartments containing different items. The vision guided robot arm finds the right item, picks it from the bin, and places it in a designated area for further processing by the human picker. Robotic bin picking technology has come a long way.

Robotic carrier systems deliver bins of goods to a collaborative robot for efficient item picking and order fulfillment. Courtesy: Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Swisslog AG“Typically we are handling from 10 up to 100,000 different SKUs,” Laeske said. “The vision must be intelligent to detect items that have not been taught before. Right now we’re testing a gripper that is able to pick and place a wide range of SKUs.”

He says the system uses a combination of 2-D vision and 3-D scanning. But the real “magic” is in the robot arm. The Kuka LBR iiwa lightweight robot has a kinematically redundant 7-axis arm with exceptional flexibility, designed to work in tight spaces and in close proximity with its human collaborators. The LBR has force torque sensors in all seven joints, making it extremely sensitive.
 
“It actually feels when it touches something,” Laeske said, explaining how that helps the robot find items in the bin and safely operate side by side with human coworkers. “If there is a failure, the worker can touch the robot, move it by hand, do the correction, touch it again, and the robot will continue working. The LBR iiwa opens up a new field of interface between man and machine.”

“Whether it’s Automated Item Pick, or CarryPick robots, or robotic depalletizing, we are not developing these robot solutions for selling robots,” Laeske said. “We are creating these solutions because we want to make our intralogistics solutions better and more competitive by adding robotics.”

This is not far from the way Amazon made its foray into the robotics world. And they’re not the only big player making strategic robotics acquisitions in this fast-moving logistics space.


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