Hamburg, 30 May 2023 - The topic of automation is currently the subject of much discussion in the intralogistics industry. With the slogan "Automation - now even smarter", the intralogistics and automation expert STILL is now taking the next step: while automation in the industry has so far been primarily a playing field for technological innovations, the experts from Hamburg now want to meet the actual and very specific automation needs of their customers efficiently and intelligently.
In addition to the desire for simpler products, STILL is seeing a growing demand among customers for automation solutions that can be implemented quickly and are scalable. "Automation is also a response to the continuing shortage of skilled workers, among other things. This is partly due to demographic trends. Numerous baby boomers will soon go into their well-deserved retirement. Moreover, staff are urgently needed in almost every industry," says Frank Müller, Senior Vice President Brand Management STILL, explaining this trend. Smart automation solutions are designed to help fill these gaps.
"Overall, we see that the desire for automation is no longer limited to the early adopters, who are always on the lookout for the latest technical trends and products. It is now the only way for many companies to counteract the pressure for efficiency. And it needs to be as quick as possible, straightforward and, of course, reliable - and ideally without any major modifications to the warehouse," adds the STILL brand manager.
Automation becomes an important strategic cornerstone
Against this background, automation has become a particularly important strategic cornerstone for STILL in recent years. However, Frank Müller warns: "We don't need higher, faster, further - we need smarter!" In other words, intelligent solutions with the appropriate level of automation that can be implemented quickly, are scalable and can be used anywhere. Also - and above all - in existing buildings. "Many can equip a completely new warehouse on a greenfield site with a high degree of automation. The trick is to bring intelligent automation into an existing, usually very tight warehouse structure. And it is precisely for these brownfield applications that STILL offers the right automation technology," emphasises Frank Müller.
Intelligent solutions for existing buildings
Whereas in the beginning the requirements for the surroundings were high for the intelligent helpers to find their way around, this is now something that can be done almost anywhere. For a new factory or a new warehouse on a greenfield site with everything robotics technology can offer is rather an exception and would not be built for the sole purpose of automation. This means that automation solutions have to be integrated into existing warehouse structures ("brownfield"). Narrow aisles lacking ideal process chains where all routes are free, but where instead there may be something in the way at one point or another. The particular challenge, however, is in mixed operations, where automated vehicles have to operate together with manual vehicles and passenger transport, as 'fenced automation', i.e. automation in a separate area, is not possible in a brownfield warehouse. STILL has suitable solutions for this too: self-learning industrial trucks that can move safely and effectively even under unfavourable conditions - along with smart separation of horizontal and vertical transport with equipment suitable for mixed operations.
A smart separation of vertical and horizontal transport operations requires a large variance of available vehicle types. Then each vehicle can take on exactly the tasks it is most suited for - and thus price and performance also correspond to customer requirements and expectations. Why should a comparatively bulky vehicle such as a high-lift pallet truck or reach truck be used for long-distance transport instead of an autonomous mobile robot (AMR)? Not to mention the fact that the forklift truck will not even reach the workers on the production line directly due to the tight space conditions there. Here, it is better to use an AMR, which quickly reaches the workplace on the production line and even stands out in terms of purchasing costs. With its compact design, it takes up barely half the space of a forklift truck to pick up and deliver the load. Moreover, at STILL you can choose between the entry-level version ACH, which navigates by QR code on the ground, and the AXH for even more flexibility. The AXH comes into play when it comes to more complex applications. It also works well in mixed operation, i.e. in collaborative interaction with other automated guided vehicles (AGVs) such as vertical order pickers or reach trucks. But it works just as well with vehicles that are not yet automated.
Gearing the automation level to requirements
The main difference between the models is the degree of autonomy that such a mobile robot provides. STILL recently demonstrated this very clearly in an automation scenario at LogiMAT 2023. So it's a question of how intelligent, how smart the AMR actually is, in order to be able to deal with unpredictable situations or a less than ideal environment. In practice, this means that an intelligent autonomous robot does not need an idealised environment, but - like its human colleagues - can adapt to its surroundings. Obstacles in the path of travel can be bypassed, and in the event of full blockages, it can completely rearrange its pre-planned route and find alternative routes to the destination. It is precisely these capabilities that allow the use of smart robots in brownfield applications, also in mixed operation with manually operated vehicles.
STILL's first autonomous transport vehicle is the OPX iGo neo. An intelligent, autonomous order picker that supports employees at work as an assisting robot ('co-bot'). But the vehicle can do much more. In various research projects, STILL has shown that the neo is also capable of fully autonomous operation. The interesting thing is that the necessary sensors are already in place, so it can serve as an ideal platform for further steps towards developing its AI capabilities.
Smart automation technology needs modularity in hardware and software
Yet this is not everything: STILL makes the automation of industrial processes even smarter by making automation scalable and by using the plug-in principle. "In order to keep up with customer requirements and the required speed, both in production and in the implementation of automated vehicles, standardised modules are needed that can be combined to create individual solutions - both for the vehicles and for the software," explains Frank Müller. Only standardised modules make it possible to design scalable automated solutions. Müller: "We need this modularity in the form of a building kit to be able to produce vehicles and put them into operation more quickly.
Maintenance, repair and retrofit, everything is made easier by portioned technology." Furthermore, the modular design makes it possible to integrate additional, new features much faster and thus to react more flexibly to trends, customer wishes and new requirements.
In the face of continuing staff shortages and growing cost pressure, STILL's vision is to bring automated solutions to the general public. Driverless transport systems (AGVs) should not be niche solutions but become suitable for the mass market. An important step along the way is the VDA 5050 interface - the universal 'language', so to speak, for various existing systems. In a networked world, it is no longer possible for each manufacturer to develop their own systems. Instead, mixed fleets with vehicles from different manufacturers should also be able to be automated without compromises. That is why several users and manufacturers of AGVs have joined forces to realise this project of a common interface. And successfully so: as part of the Intralogistics Test Camp during the IFOY Test Days 2023, vehicles from STILL and five other manufacturers operated together within a control system by KION Group for the first time. This test scenario in Dortmund ran for four days - and it ran reliably, demonstrating how the transmission of orders and status data works. From 27 to 30 June 2023, the project will take place at the automatica trade fair in Munich - and STILL will be part of it again. At the same time, the communication interface is being further developed so that in future it will be the standard integrated into every new automated vehicle from STILL.