A real crowd puller at WOMH 2016 was the fully automated robot theatre in the Automation section where, among other things, the latest Linde Robotics product, the K-MATIC narrow-aisle truck, was demonstrated. I asked Clement Masson, one of the responsible experts, to explain the demonstration plant to me. Accompany us into the future – to the era of automated warehouse management and the world of driverless industrial trucks equipped with 3D cameras and steered by lasers.
The technology used in the Linde Matic range does not make tracks, reflectors and other guidance systems redundant. These vehicles can navigate through warehouse buildings autonomously with the aid of geoguidance. And they talk to one another, which can create a fascinating ballet. Instead of waiting, the trucks approach one another to hand over warehouse goods. In addition, the technology is flexible enough to enable phased automation, which makes possible the mixed operation of manual and automated processes.
One area being presented at World of Material Handling 2016 fascinates me in particular: automation. When people hear about his vast, diverse field they often think of robots replacing human beings. What many people forget is that semi-automatic systems are going to become more common in the near future. I’m referring to solutions that make it possible for people and machines to interact. Linde is creating one of these solutions. It’s called OptiPick and is still in development, but will soon be ready for its market launch.
It’s amazing to watch, thanks to its fluid handling and simple changeover from manual to automatic mode.
What is OptiPick and how does it work?
A colleague – one of the team responsible for developing the system – was nice enough to demonstrate it for me. As noted, it’s almost ready to be launched which means the odd technical detail or two might still be changed. At the moment it consists of a control unit – a computerised cuff – that the operator wears on their arm. The complete solution also includes the order picker N20, which communicates wirelessly with the cuff.
The different ways the system can be used:
The operator simply touches the cuff, thereby sending a command to the N20 which begins moving on its own. It proceeds parallel to the rack, covering exactly 2.80 metres, the length of a standard racking unit. Naturally a different distance can be programmed into the system. The truck stops after exactly 2.80 metres. The operator takes the package out of the rack and puts it next to the other items on the truck. Touching the cuff again causes the vehicle to drive to its next position. The key advantage of the system immediately becomes clear: the operator no longer needs to walk back and forth between the truck and the storage rack. The vehicle stays “obediently” at the operator’s side. As a result, the entire process is not awkward and lurching, but flexible and fluid.
This time the operator tapped the control unit twice. That tells the N20 to skip one pallet and cover twice its normal distance, or 5.60 metres.
If the operator needs to move to a rack located further away, all they have to do is maintain pressure on the cuff. The truck will continue moving until the operator tells it to stop by tapping the cuff again. It couldn’t be simpler – or more responsive.
Tap – move – pick – tap – move – pick. That’s the magic formula.
The operator can take control of the vehicle manually at any time simply by getting in as they normally would and beginning to steer. The shift from automatic to manual mode happens without any special commands or complex manoeuvres. All you do is climb in and start driving. Then get out, pick up an order, tap the cuff and send the N20 to its next stop. The video shows how smooth the whole process is.
If an object or person is in the N20’s path while it’s moving, the vehicle will automatically stop thanks to sensors installed in the front that monitor a 180-degree area around the vehicle. The system is so intelligent that the vehicle will even drive around smaller obstacles. The truck also senses when it is at the end of a rack and it automatically remains in place in order to avoid moving into an area with cross-traffic. The system can also be programmed so the vehicle moves closer to or farther from the rack. The minimum distance is 55 centimetres.
The N20 order picker with the OptiPick system
I only have one question: When will Linde Material Handling be offering a miniaturised system for use at home?
World of Material Handling 2016 got off to a successful start and is now offering an expected 6,000 visitors from all over the world an abundance of information about the latest challenges in intralogistics. Linde Material Handling has recognised four major trends here – Automation, Connectivity, Individualisation and Power Systems – which will be presented in detail during the fair under the motto “linked perspectives”. How did Linde discover them? The answer is almost too simple to be true: close customer relations!
Close customer relations – an empty phrase?
I’ve really noticed it in all my discussions with the employees I’ve met so far during the event. They fill the idea of close customer relations with life in a way I’ve never experienced before with other firms. Many companies make pronouncements about their closeness to customers in their brochures, but how many of them actually live this idea? If all firms were like that, there would be far fewer bad products and less poor service. Without close customer relations, a company cannot realise good products or keep up with the times and its customers. It is therefore no coincidence that I have heard more than once in discussions with visitors that “Linde is the authority when it comes to forklifts!” This should be understood as an honour, an acknowledgement of the attention to detail and high quality standards shown in realising products and services. People abroad probably describe this as “made in Germany”.
Andreas Krinninger on close customer relations
Andreas Krinninger (CEO Linde Material Handling) explicitly acknowledged these close customer relations when he welcomed a large number of visitors with the words: “Supporting our customers in optimising their material handling performance is our key priority! Our target is to be the company that best understands our customers’ material handling challenges and performance improvement opportunities.”
He said the following about the four trends – Automation, Connectivity, Individualisation and Power Systems: “These four trends suggest a high growth momentum for the intralogistics sector. The four trends will largely determine the further development of our offering. We need a broad-based approach to help our customers optimise their ever more complex process chains.”
What do the four trends mean in concrete terms?
Christophe Lautray, Linde Material Handling’s Chief Sales Officer, outlined them in greater detail for visitors. Let us sum up what he said here:
The key to increasing efficiency is no longer only the vehicle itself, but its integration in processes. Based on an increasing number of sensors and communication systems, the world of intralogistics is increasingly becoming an interconnected operations system. You could even regard it as a kind of operating system. No matter which machine is being operated or which software is being used, the operating system ensures all the components are connected.
The steadily growing range of autonomous industrial trucks capable of driving and lifting without an operator is accompanied by a clear paradigm shift: the boundaries between manual and fully automatic operation are becoming increasingly fuzzy. What’s more, the concept of the “smart factory” already indicates where things are heading. Automated vehicles communicate not only with WMS and ERP systems, but also with other devices, roller conveyors and gates as well as machines and equipment.
Ultimately, dwindling resources, stricter emissions regulations and higher sustainability and efficiency standards are leading to the introduction of alternative power systems. Today, customers like BMW are already relying on vehicles powered by fuel cells or lithium-ion batteries to put the principle of sustainability into practice throughout the production process. More and more customers are asking about alternatives to lead-acid batteries. A significant proportion of vehicles will use lithium-ion technology in the foreseeable future.
The growing e-commerce market is resulting in a steady decrease in batch sizes while simultaneously bringing about a fundamental change in the requirements for order picking and product handling. As a result, there is increasing demand for larger numbers of models, options and custom manufactured products to be able to keep up with competitors while simultaneously increasing efficiency, improving safety and reducing costs.
What comes next?
So now we know the four major trends. But what do they mean in practice? So much for the theory. Next, during the event, I will illustrate all four areas with practical examples and applications, and also interview fair visitors – customers, experts and partners – to make this as lively and concrete as possible.
Automation, Individualisation, Power Systems and Connectivity are the key topics being presented at World of Material Handling 2016. The Automation section includes an extremely interesting demonstration facility that shows visitors a fully automated solution in operation. Here you will find amazed visitors following the movements of a new K-MATIC high-rack forklift as it performs a high-precision ballet routine with a P-MATIC tractor and an L-MATIC AC counterbalanced high-lift truck. It’s a real spectacle, one you shouldn’t miss. Here is a very short time-lapse description:
The K-MATIC high-rack forklift takes a pallet out of a bay at the demonstration facility and carries it to the handover point. The L-MATIC high-lift truck has already received instructions and takes the pallet before putting it down on a roller conveyor. There the P-MATIC tractor is waiting for the pallet, which is then transported to another rack. In another circuit, you can also see how the P-MATIC drives the pallet directly to the waiting L-MATIC high-lift truck that then takes the goods. All this happens without any human intervention.
This demonstration enables us to understand how Linde Material Handling’s different approaches work hand in hand – a real case of linked perspectives. Networking technologies combine control systems, sensors, navigation systems and communication with inventory systems. Automation technology unites the two worlds of networking and product solutions.
However, the possibilities for this kind of interaction are not only limited to fully automated solutions. Linde is also facilitating mixed solutions with manually operated vehicles. All the models in the MATIC range are equipped with appropriate sensors not only to ensure precise handling of material flows, but also to preserve the safety of humans and products.
Fascinating is the right word for this demonstration plant!