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ProMat 2023 Insights: Integrated robotics direction seems well-matched to the times

Last week’s Promat was a welcome return to the excitement of the last live edition of the event, back in 2019.

First off, the event was packed and informative. There was record-setting total registration mark of 50,924 industry professionals, across more than 1000 exhibitor booths in two large halls. Things were hopping, even more so than at last year’s successful Modex show, also put on by MHI.

Looking back on the industry changes since 2019, some challenges persist. Labor availability remains a core driver for solutions, as reaffirmed by MHI’s Annual Industry Report released at ProMat. This year’s report and survey, covered in this article, found that hiring and retaining qualified workers remained the top supply chain industry challenge, followed closely by issues like supply chain disruption, out of stock situations, and rising customer demands.

It’s been a tumultuous few years since that last live ProMat, dominated first by the pandemic and its disruptions, followed by the war in Ukraine and rising geopolitical instability, and since last spring, rising inflation and interest rates. As a result, companies aren’t just out to automate select tasks, they are also after greater operational agility and real-time analytics to help contain costs while hitting service levels. And everywhere it seemed, exhibitors were talking integrated robotics, to speed up overall material flow and order fulfillment efficiencies in DCs.

For sure, the market is further along with adoption of technologies like autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) than it was back in 2019. For instance, Modern’s annual Equipment Outlook study found that 18% of readers we surveyed in late 2022 are using AMRs or automated guided vehicles (AGVs), up from 10% the year before, and 6% two years previous. We’ve also found healthy adoption rates for piece picking robotics, which use vision technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to know how to grasp and place items.

Another sign of the integration focus: software vendors looking to coordinate the missions of multiple AMR fleets. ProMat exhibitors addressing this need included SVT Robotics, GreyOrange, Coevolution, and BlueBotics, to name a few. In the case of BlueBotics, the first-gen for its multi-fleet orchestration targets those vendors with bots or AGVs already using its “ANT” natural feature navigation software, which is about 80 vendors, and it’s working on broader reach leveraging content from standards, according to BlueBotics CEO Dr. Nicola Tomatis, who I spoke with at ProMat.

Integrated, smart automation systems will also feed into analytics platforms, improving the ability of warehouse automation systems to adapt dynamically, say other exhibitors I met with. Rob McKeel, CEO of the global systems integrator and automation provider FORTNA, says that technology advances in areas like robotic piece picking can be the right fit today for some tasks, but also expect software platforms for digital twin modeling and data science and analytics to advance rapidly, harnessing real-time data from automation systems, resulting in a platform that can help an operation adjust its automation to constraints, avoid downtime, and become more profitable.

Say a company is running a goods-to-person automation system, and a picker leaves a picker workstation unexpectedly, explains McKeel. Real-time warehouse optimization software would spot that change and adjust the flow of work to the GTP system until the picker returns and capacity is restored, which could help avoid inefficiencies from work piling up. It’s a matter of having analytics that make warehouse automation and robotics more self-adjusting, he says, to help with both performance and costs in today’s “always on,” high-volume fulfillment centers.

While labor availability constraints and the higher cost of labor remain the core driver for automation, McKeel says more companies FORTNA is having discussions with want to improve analytics to know the ongoing cost of order picking and other fulfillment tasks, not just what the materials handling automation project itself will cost, or raw throughput measures.

“Cost insights, like what is the fundamental cost per pick for this solution, is something we are getting more requests about,” McKeel says. “Before, it used to be more of a units-per-hour conversation ... knowing the throughput rates to expect from a project. Now we get more questions along the lines of, 'what will the cost per pick be, and how can your solution help manage costs when the automation is running?”

Steps that FORTNA is taking with its software that will improve agility, he adds, include digital twin modeling and analytics, data-driven algorithms to help adjust the automation, and a more dynamic inventory slotting capability. Already, McKeel says, the Optricity slotting that FORTNA acquired in early 2022 can be used to pinpoint the highest value set of slotting moves that can be handled during a shift without disrupting order picking, but the long-term focus for the slotting engine is to make it fully dynamic. Other growth solutions for FORTNA, McKeel says, include AutoStore projects, including one system with over one million bins, use of AMRs to support garment-on-hanger fulfillment processes, and integrated robotic piece picking solutions. However, he adds, FORTNA always takes a “problem first” approach to solutions assessment, so what’s right for one client might not be the best solution for others.

Some major AMR vendors at the show were stressing integration. For example, shortly before ProMat, Locus Robotics and Berkshire Grey, announced a combined solution that integrates the Berkshire Grey Robotic Shuttle Put Wall (BG RSPWi) with Locus Origin and Locus Vector bots. At ProMat, 6 River Systems had a booth display that featured not just their AMRs, but showed how goods from their system can feed sortation AMRs from Tompkins Robotics, or route goods to packaging automation from Accutech.

At the Honewell Intelligrated booth, one demo featured Honeywell’s Smart, Flexible Depalletizer, which uses an articulating arm and vision and AI technology, working in concert with an autonomous lift AMR from OTTO Motors. Keith Fisher, president of Honeywell Intelligrated, explained this type of integrated solution is well suited to brownfield DCs, where space constraints might make it challenging to install pallet conveyor runs into and out of a robotic depalletizer.

Other vendors continue to integrate automated storage systems and shuttles with smart, robotic piece picking. For instance, Vanderlande was demonstrating its GtP 2.0 workstation integrated with a robotic piece-picking arm from RightHand Robotics, an alliance announced a year ago at Modex.

In summary ProMat featured more robots than ever, but for all the wow factor of amazing looking robots like the humanoid, tote-moving bot from Agility Robotics, the robotics watch word was integration: how to integrate robotic systems with each other, and for that matter, with everything else.

Vision applications

Smart robotic piece picking solutions typically use vision technology, but vision also is cropping up in other types of solutions that do things like count and spot problems with inventory in storage.

At ProMat, I stopped by to check out Dexory, formerly called BotsAndUs whose solution makes use of vision and scanner technology on a mobile robot. The robot’s cameras and sensors are on a mechanism that can extend to 12 meters high to capture images, and label and barcode data as the AMRs move about the warheouse. This data is fed into a software platform that acts like a digital twin of the warehouse and the inventory stored in its racks.

The solution isn’t just for counting inventory via bar code scans, says Oana Jinga, Dexory’s COO, the image analysis can also highlight empty rack locations, and spot problems with inventory or rack condition. Insights from the platform can help make WMSs more accurate, which helps avoid problems in order fulfillment, or to manage storage capacity when adding more products, or if a 3PL, if making space for new clients.

By this blending of AMRs, vision technology, and digital twin software, says Jinga, operations can have an accurate view of what is really in their warehouses, open positions, and even monitor distances between goods in reserve and forward pick areas. “With this solution, you can embrace what we call the real-time digital twin, which is the future for managing warehouses,” says Jinga.

Multiple other exhibitors were highlighting digital twin capabilities. Most blend digital twin modelling with analytics, to make digital twin software useful for operational what-ifs and insights, rather than being a one-time modeling effort.

Lift truck charging

Nearly every major lift truck provider was highlighting autonomous forklift models, as well as lithium power options. There were also multiple vendors offering wireless charging systems as a way to incrementally boost productivity for opportunity charging versus having operators hook into wired chargers. With wireless charging, the operator simply needs to pull the truck into relatively close proximity to a wireless charging station (the more space tolerance the easier it is to do) to trigger an opportunity charge. For instance, Enersys was highlighting its new new wireless charging solution, as reported in one of our Show Daily stories here.

I also had discussions about how opportunity charging practices can change for the better, making the charging points less centralized to avoid a lumpy energy draw which can be a significant cost factor for large fleets. Grayson Zulauf, CEO and co-founder of Resonant Link, a provider of wireless charging solutions for materials handling that exhibited at ProMat, believes opportunity charging can be improved by distributing the charging points, rather than the more traditional practice of placing all chargers in a row near a break room or some other centralized point.

Centralizing chargers, he told me, tends to result in all assets being charged at the same time, which results in a large power draw and higher energy costs when a site’s electricity rates are set based on peak usage. “When we think about what's possible with opportunity charging, we can do more today to really distribute that energy transfer for fleets across both time and space, which lowers costs,” Zulauf says. “With fast, wireless opportunity charging, you can place chargers at natural stopping points in a workflow, like at the end of an aisle, or near a loading dock, and get more frequent and very effective charging. That will smooth out the charging draw for your mobile fleet rather than having these bigger draws at peak times and it will enable smaller fleets to do more work.”

Zulauf adds that chargers need to be fast and easy to use for this strategy to work well. Longer term, it’s possible charging points could be integrated into the floor of warehouse aisles, Zulauf says, making for a more continuous approach to charging batteries, which would in turn make smaller, less costly batteries feasible for a site’s industrial truck or mobile robot assets.

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About the Author

Roberto Michel's avatar
Roberto Michel
Roberto Michel, senior editor for Modern, has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to Modern since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. You can reach him at: [email protected].
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