CeMAT 2020, 20 - 24 April

Robot helpers in logistics

In the future, robots will take over a lot of the heavy lifting in factories and warehouse. In the future? Actually, in many areas of logistics, robotic helpers are already a reality, and the technology is moving head at light speed.

23 Oct. 2015

The trend toward robotic solutions in logistics is unmistakable. All logistics providers surveyed by the Bremen Institute for Production Logistics (BIBA) in its RoboScan’14 study indicated that they were planning to implement at least one robotic solution by 2019. The equivalent study in 2007 revealed that only 41 percent of respondents were using robotics.

Robotic technology has enormous scope for relieving humans of ergonomically critical tasks that frequently cause injuries and illnesses and hence result in high costs. The "CareJack" power vest developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM) is a case in point. The vest is a "soft robotic" system that uses an orthopedic prosthesis to support people as they go about physically demanding tasks. Special electronics incorporated into the vest material store the wearer’s kinetic energy and release it again when it is required. The wearer can select the level of support.

Three months’ worth of salary going into back problems

The first prototypes of the vest are already being tested. It will likely meet with enormous demand, given that back strain caused by lifting heavy loads and making repetitive, one-sided movements is the single most common cause of work-related illness in the EU. "On average, a mid-sized company with 60 employees will have five employees off work for two and a half weeks per year due to back injury. That’s three months’ worth of salary going into back problems," says Dr. Jens Bass , Chairman of the Board of Germany’s Technische Krankenkasse health insurance provider.

The IT experts at Kaspersky Lab predict that 30 years from now, we will have billions of robots at our beck and call, relieving us of all our unpleasant and physically demanding work. While we can’t know if things really will pan out this way, one thing is for sure: robotic technology is moving ahead at light speed.

Virtually limitless applications

Robotic systems are currently i n use in many areas of logistics , ranging from stock management, goods tracking, recognition and sorting to order picking, palletizing and packaging, right through to materials flow optimization and quality control.

One current example of an innovative robotics solution in the logistics sector is the RackRacer. Developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) and showcased at CeMAT 2014, the RackRacer is a shuttle for automated shuttle warehouses that can climb around racks without the aid of a lift or additional rails.

The RackRacer shuttle moves autonomously in both horizontal and diagonal directions at speeds of up to one meter per second, so it’s much more efficient than conventional shuttles. And because it requires no rails or lift systems, it is more cost-effective to install and makes better use of available warehouse space.

Fraunhofer IML Director Prof. Michael Hompel describes the RackRacer as a "fundamental innovation in logistics" that "marks the beginning of a new era in shuttle technology."

Human-robot collaboration

While the RackRacer works autonomously, other types of robot systems are designed to work with humans at close quarters. They are collaborative robots – the next big thing in robotics technology and a key part of the Industry 4.0 vision. One of the main challenges here is that the robots need to be safe enough to work alongside their human colleagues without cages or guard rails.

"Automation technology is the key to technical development and further advancement," confirms Franz-Josef Kleigrewe , head of automation at the Beumer mechanical and plant engineering group. According to Kleigrewe, automation frees up precious manpower for deployment in other locations, which is why automated solutions generally pay for themselves in a short space of time.

So what are the latest big robotics innovations? And what impact will they have on logistics processes and the supply chain overall? Find out at CeMAT.

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