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Mobile Robots and Intralogistics the Always-On Supply Chain

POSTED 07/26/2016  | By: Tanya M. Anandan, Contributing Editor

When 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, your road to Industry 4.0. Your 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.

Rack ‘n Robots, 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. But in Europe, the CarryPick® system 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.

Autonomous mobile robot transports materials throughout the warehouse without the need for special infrastructure. (Courtesy of OTTO Motors)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, AMRs
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 (not the same Otto recently acquired by Uber) is the industrial division of Clearpath Robotics Inc. The Canadian startup was founded in 2009 by graduates of the University of Waterloo’s mechatronics engineering program, including CEO Matt Rendall, a recently appointed RIA board member.

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 and often called AMRs, 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,” says Drexler. “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,” says Drexler. “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,” says Drexler. “By not requiring any infrastructure to navigate, the solution is able to grow and change with your organization.”

Launched in September 2015, OTTO is an autonomous mobile platform designed for material handling in industrial centers. Some specific applications include line side delivery in manufacturing centers, and storage and retrieval systems inside warehouses. It comes in two sizes, a 1500-kg payload capacity (pictured) and a smaller 100-kg payload model.

OTTO uses LIDAR sensors for navigation. The larger OTTO 1500 has front and rear sensors, while OTTO 100 has a single laser scanner on the front. Center differential-driven wheels help OTTO maneuver within tight spaces and around sharp corners, saving needed floor space. A passive suspension in the large-payload model helps protect the load. Watch OTTO in action in this promotional video.

“OTTO can be configured to fit a variety of different use cases,” says Drexler. “That’s one of the features of the platform. The appliance or a configuration that sits on top of OTTO can come in the form of a storage bin, top plate for pallets, shelving unit, or conveyor.”

Manufacturers are deploying mobile robots to deliver parts to the assembly line, transport work-in-process (WIP), and manage material handling in their warehouses. A fleet of OTTO vehicles will be deployed in a GE Healthcare repair facility to automate just-in-time parts delivery. The robot fleet will load and deliver parts to work cells for repair. Upon completion, OTTO will dispatch the restored parts for return shipping to customers. Agricultural equipment maker John Deere also plans to deploy OTTO vehicles for assembly line conveyance at its production facility in Horicon, Wisconsin.

Ready for Industry 4.0
The secret behind the autonomous navigation of these self-driving vehicles is the software. As we learned in the article Intelligent Robots: A Feast for the Senses, it’s the sensors that make robots perceptive. It’s the algorithms that make them smart.

“The software is the most important component of the system,” says Drexler. “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 says mobile robots like OTTO are already primed for Industry 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. Industry 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.”

Smart Robots, Smart Factory
Closing that loop and automating the flow of materials both to and from manufacturing processes and in and out of distribution and fulfillment workstations is gaining ground thanks to a slew of mobile robots by established suppliers and new startups.

Omron Adept Technologies offers its fleet of Lynx Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles for transporting goods through warehouses, distribution centers, and factories. See how two AIVs dubbed “Fred” and “Stella” help workers decrease fulfillment times for this jewelry manufacturer.

As reported in Robots and Healthcare Saving Lives Together, Aethon Inc. already has its TUG robots in more than 125 hospitals. Now they’re making inroads on the factory floor. Watch the TUG autonomous mobile robot in manufacturing.

Vecna Inc. offers a variety of autonomous mobile robots in various payloads and configurations for both healthcare and the warehouse. All are designed to operate safely among their human coworkers and without the need for facility modifications. Watch them move.

Startups Fetch Robotics Inc. and Locus Robotics also offer mobile robots for the warehouse. Learn more about the Fetch and Freight solutions in this Service Robotics Case Studies report by Silicon Valley Robotics. Watch the Locus bot in action here.

Another startup with robotics veterans at the helm is making a move in the intralogistics space.

Meet MiR
After 2 years of intensive development while working as a researcher at University of Southern Denmark, Niels Jul Jacobsen founded Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) in May 2013. Jacobsen was one of the original board members for Danish collaborative robot maker Universal Robots A/S, acquired by Teradyne in 2015, and one of the key players behind the creation of technology cluster Odense Robotics. Fellow Universal Robots alumnus CEO Thomas Visti has controlling interest as one of the private investors in MiR. The startup is headquartered in Odense, Denmark.

The MiR100 autonomous mobile robot has a 100-kg payload capacity, and depending on the load, can run 10-15 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.

Watch the MiR100 Hook in action at Arla Foods, Denmark’s largest dairy.

“When you’re a large company that has hundreds of four-wheel carts and you don’t want to modify them, the Hook option is a great way to just grab onto a cart and tow it around,” says Ed Mullen, another Universal Robots alum and Vice President of Sales – Americas for Mobile Industrial Robots Inc. in Stony Brook, New York.

Mullen is tasked with establishing a distributor network for MiR in North America. Several distributors are already signed, with more in the works. MiR will open a local office in New York this summer for inventorying robots and parts, and providing training and support for distributors and end users. (Psst, MiR is hiring.)

“List price is right under $30K in North America,” says Mullen, noting that’s just for the MiR autonomous mobile platform. “That’s why we go to market through talented industrial automation distributors that can add value to the robot, what we call top modules. Those top modules could be in the form factor of a shelf, or a bin, or a set of drawers. Or it could be a six-axis robotic arm, or a conveyor.

Autonomous mobile robot tows a heavy cart full of milk crates through the warehouse for order picking. (Courtesy of Mobile Industrial Robots A/S)“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 patented technology relies on two laser scanners, front and back, for a 360-degree view. It also has 8 ultrasonic sensors and a 3D 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,” says Mullen. “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 2D 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,” says Mullen. “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.”

This video case study shows MiR100 on the job at a 10,000-square-meter production facility for Scan A/S, a manufacturer of wood and gas stove fireplaces.

Mullen says MiR has over 100 robots operating in facilities across Europe, including global manufacturers Leoni, Flextronics, and Continental. 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,” says Mullen. “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 Industry 4.0 and an interconnected supply chain.

“The fleet package resides on a company LAN,” says Mullen. “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.

Mullen says MiR prides itself on being an “extremely safe robot.”

“We use two SICK safety laser scanners, the yellow ones. The data for those feed back to a SICK PLC with SICK safety relays. We actually conform to a Category 4 performance level e safety system, or EN 1525. That’s a spec that was written exclusively for mobile robots.”

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.

Swarms of mobile robots retrieve and deliver bins of goods to operators at a clothing retailer’s distribution center. (Courtesy of Bastian Solutions, LLC)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 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.

Compact and modular, the AutoStore system saves considerable floor space, increases order fulfillment efficiency, and easily scales up or down as needs change. This video shows how the AutoStore system works.

“The big difference is that each AutoStore robot is able to deliver each bin to each station,” says Kirt Laeske, Product Manager Robotic Solutions for Swisslog AG in Buchs, Switzerland. “This makes AutoStore more flexible,” he adds, 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,” says Laeske. “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.”

Swisslog installed an AutoStore system for Asda Logistics Services in 2013. Asda is one of the UK’s largest retailers and part of the Walmart group. As the largest AutoStore installation in the region, the system incorporates over 70,000 storage bins and 164 robots.

This video shows time-lapse footage of the seven-week installation process and the completed solution in action at the Asda distribution center in Leicestershire, England.

The Swarm Effect
With swarms of these robots working together but separately, at any given time the system can determine which robot is in the best position to retrieve the next bin in an order. 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.

Again, this autonomy comes from sophisticated fleet management software.

“Think of it as two brains,” explains Joe Zoghzoghy, Mobile Robotics Manager for Bastian Solutions LLC, a global material handling and robotic systems integrator based in Indianapolis, Indiana. “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 we alluded to earlier. The smaller-brained mobile robots are coordinating with each other and with the bigger brain to accomplish certain tasks.

Robotic vehicle delivers product to operator in apparel e-retailer’s order fulfillment center. (Courtesy of Bastian Solutions, LLC)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 (pictured).

This video shows the Perfect Pick iBOTs in action at BHFO, one of the largest retail and apparel sellers on eBay. BHFO needed an order fulfillment system that could keep up with its growing number of daily auctions. Bastian Solutions came to the rescue. The manual order fulfillment process was replaced with an automated system that consolidated storage space, increased throughput, and reduced picking errors.

Bastian’s Director of Advanced Technology Derek Cribley says 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,” says Cribley. “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.”

The heart of the SERVUS system is the ARC or Autonomous Robotic Carrier, which unlike some of the other swarm robot systems, 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. Check out this video and the piggybacking SCHUNK Powerball Lightweight Arm.

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.

Robotic carrier systems deliver bins of goods to a collaborative robot for efficient item picking and order fulfillment. (Courtesy of Swisslog AG)Robot-Assisted Picking with AIP
A new 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 (pictured) 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,” says Swisslog’s Laeske. “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. As we found in the article Holy Grail in Sight, robotic bin picking technology has come a long way.

“Typically we are handling from 10 up to 100,000 different SKUs,” says Laeske. “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 2D vision and 3D 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,” says Laeske, 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.”

Watch this human-robot collaborative picking station in action in this demonstration video for Swisslog’s Automated Item Pick system.

“Whether it’s Automated Item Pick, or CarryPick robots, or robotic depalletizing, we are not developing these robot solutions for selling robots,” says Laeske. “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. Here’s one startup to watch.

Introducing Swift
The Swift mobile picking robot combines an autonomous mobile vehicle with a vision guided robot arm in one integrated system. It’s the brainchild of IAM Robotics.

Established in 2012 and based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, IAM Robotics unites three research engineers from Carnegie Mellon University. Founder and CEO Tom Galluzzo, Hardware Lead Vladimir Altman, and Chief Software Architect Ricky Houghton bring mobile picking to life.

“Even before CMU, I was working on autonomous ground vehicles and driverless cars, and had a lot of experience in autonomous navigation,” says Galluzzo. “But then at CMU we got to work on a project for the department of defense to do autonomous manipulation. We surprised ourselves how well we could do certain tasks, particularly when it came to picking up objects and moving them around.”

This entrepreneur at heart went looking for the low-hanging fruit in industry where he could find applications for autonomous manipulation. The startup spent its first year conducting extensive market research.

“We talked to a lot of executive level folks in the industry and got a lot of validation. Everyone we talked to said, ‘Yes, we want this product yesterday!’

“This has been a dream of ours for 5 years, but the industry has been dreaming about this for decades, putting robot arms on mobile AGVs and having them do useful, everyday work inside a distribution center. Now it’s here.”

Mobile picking robot extracts items from warehouse shelves and places them in a bin for order fulfillment. (Courtesy of IAM Robotics)Further validation came with VC investment by Comet Labs, an intelligent machine and robotics accelerator based in Silicon Valley. Still in the seed-funding stage, IAM Robotics is accepting pilot program customers and launching initial beta deployments. They have a preferred partner program to provide additional incentives for early adopters.

“We have a leasing partner that’s working with us to finance robots for customers on a case-by-case basis. It makes for a very fast return on investment, especially when you’re building robots that can work as fast as a person.

“Our first customer is Rochester Drug Cooperative (RDC), so we’ll be actually deploying the system into a pharmaceuticals facility this summer,” says Galluzzo.

This video shows a prototype version of the Swift robot before the most recent iterations of the mobile vehicle and robotic manipulator. Customers at RDC comment on the system’s advantages. Other potential applications include warehouse distribution and order fulfillment in the health and beauty, grocery, and e-commerce markets.

IAM Robotics’ patent-pending technology uses a depth-sensing camera for navigation. For maneuverability it uses two center-drive wheels with casters around the outside, which are all covered for safety. It has a swappable rechargeable battery that lasts about 10 hours, so the system can operate 24/7 by simply exchanging spent batteries for fully charged ones. The onboard HMI display shows battery level warnings, along with other critical status elements.

Collaborative Mobile Picking Robot
The robotic manipulator is a FANUC LR Mate 200iD six-axis arm guided by the same vision technology as the mobile base. Swift uses the same depth-sensing cameras to inspect the surrounding environment for collision avoidance. Both the mobile base and the robot arm will slow down and then stop if they sense the presence of a person or other obstacle impeding their safe movement.

The system relies on a patent-pending 3D product scanner called Flash, also created by IAM Robotics, that records the barcode, product dimensions, weight, and 3D features of the items intended for picking. The picking robot must first “learn” what each item looks like and how to grasp it. Then it uses onboard software called RapidVision that enables Swift to recognize the items it’s trying to pick.

“The intelligence of the system and the ability for it to be autonomous is all driven by software,” says Galluzzo. “The system actually connects to remote tablets and mobile devices, so that it can send data to those devices and let people know that it needs assistance.

“We’re not taking the people completely out of the loop,” he adds. “We’re just trying to keep the time between human interventions minimal.”

The shelves also have to be stocked in a fairly organized fashion, so that the robots can securely grasp the items.

“We divide and conquer the warehouse,” says Galluzzo. “We look for warehouses that have a high percentage of inventory that is compatible with the robot. We have people doing what they’re good at, which is handling the deformable items like apparel, and we have the robots doing what they are good at, which is picking the rigid boxes and bottles.

“Ergonomic advantages are key on our customers’ minds in this market. Because of the exponential expansion of e-commerce, there just aren’t enough people to do the work. Because the robot is doing all the lifting, it makes the job easier. It’s bending down, it’s reaching up high, and it’s doing this all day long. Now a person is upgraded to not just a picker, but a supervisor of robots.”

This video animation shows the Swift autonomous mobile picking robot in a typical application environment. By automating the picking and transport processes, these mobile robots have the ability to collect video and pictures, and track movement of product. Again, ready for Industry 4.0.

“By having machines that can basically work as data collectors, connected devices in a manufacturing and distribution facility, you now have an unprecedented ability to collect and manage data which you didn’t have when you just had people walking around,” says Galluzzo. “Now we can almost turn an entire facility into a video game-style command and control center. Rather than taking 5 to10 minutes to walk through my facility to see if something is on the shelf, I can just pull up a picture from the live robot view of the world.”

As we headed to press, the folks at IEEE Spectrum also gave IAM Robotics a hearty nod, along with more video. Check it out here.

Munich-based startup Magazino has a mobile picking robot called TORU that’s designed to share the same aisles with its human coworkers while picking a variety of items from storage. Learn more about the founders’ vision and watch a video here.

Large-Payload Mobile Manipulators
This is the new face of warehouse logistics and order fulfillment. A new breed of free-roaming mobile manipulators will be able to pick and transport items in a range of sizes and payloads. We’re already seeing more of these autonomous mobile manipulators in the wild.

Prototype mobile manipulator combines a six-axis articulated robot mounted on a self-driving vehicle. (Courtesy of OTTO Motors)At Automatica in June, OTTO Motors and Japanese robot maker Yaskawa Motoman teamed up to unveil their R&D effort for combining the larger OTTO 1500 mobile vehicle with an onboard six-axis robot. The working demo turned heads on the show floor.

Meanwhile, Bastian Solutions is working with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to develop its own brand of mobile manipulators. Joe Zoghzoghy says the technology is finally mature enough to build these kinds of systems. At the same time, demand for mobile manipulators is rising as competition for faster cycle times and higher throughput intensifies between distribution and fulfillment centers.

This is exactly why Bastian Solutions created the Mobile Robotics division and hired Zoghzoghy to lead the effort. He says they hope to have these six-axis mobile manipulators in pilot testing by the end of the year.

“What differentiates these systems from other mobile robots and shuttle systems is their ability to fill multiple orders at a time,” says Zoghzoghy. “We built the (autonomous) AGV system in house. The arm we get from robot suppliers. Everything else on board is custom designed ourselves.”

He says the systems are running on ROS open source software and Bastian is working closely with ROS developers at SwRI. The beauty of an open source software platform means greater flexibility for design changes.

“If we need to go with a different arm for whatever the reason is, say we need to have a bigger robot or a client has a preference for a certain robot manufacturer, we can swap out arms without going through the software development for that specific supplier,” says Zoghzoghy. “ROS gives us modularity in a sense, so that we can use any type of mechanical, electrical, or electronic system and integrate it for our solution.”

Zoghzoghy and his colleagues gave a sneak peek of their mobile manipulator concept and working prototype during an informative webinar presented at MODEX in April. Watch it here.

“The key term in the past has always been goods-to-person,” says Zoghzoghy. “We’re thinking the next logical step will be to make the robot (manipulator) go to the goods, much the way a person does.”

From manual picking to advanced goods-to-person mobile solutions, we’ve come a long way. Now with the dawn of “robot-to-goods” the face of intralogistics is transforming before our eyes. We expect to see the swarm effect take hold with free-roaming mobile robots as more manufacturers, DCs, and e-retailers upgrade their automation for an always-on, lights-out supply chain.

RIA Members featured in this article:
Aethon Inc.
Bastian Solutions, LLC
Clearpath Robotics Inc.

Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR)