One of the major obstacles companies face when considering automation is flexibility; that is, the ability of the system to accommodate future changes in throughput or product mix. Who wants to spend $5 million for a system that might not be able to handle the load in two or three years?
We have developed three systems based on a grid- or puzzle-based architecture, in which unit-sized conveyors pass totes or pallets in any of the four cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). The underlying technology for grid-based material handling was recently introduced at the Institute for Conveyor Technology and Logistics at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology by my colleagues Kai Furmans and Stephan Mayer. Here is a nice demo of the system, which is being marketed by Gebhardt in Germany:
Flexconveyor has a number of interesting features. First, units self-discover when plugged into one another; that is, when a unit is plugged in, it asks its new neighbor what it knows and then shares its own information. Each unit builds an internal map of the network, which allows it to make appropriate routing decisions when totes roll on top. Second, the resulting conveyor flows are deadlock free (as the final scenes of the top video illustrate). Third, control is completely decentralized. Each unit-sized conveyor has its own controller, and each controller has identical logic. Thus, units can be produced much more economically than customized conveyor systems.
The goal is to develop a complete set of “plug and work” intralogistics tools that convey, store, and otherwise handle cartons, totes, and pallets. For an overview of the concept, please read this paper:
- Kai Furmans, Frank Schönung, and Kevin R. Gue, “Plug-and-Work Material Handling Systems,” Progress in Material Handling Research: 2010, pg. 132–142, 2010.