For most people, a visit to the pharmacy usually ends with a few sympathetic words and a remedy to take home. Frederick Branter (pictured right) had a different experience, he left with an idea about robots!
Branter was visiting a friend who had installed an automated storage robot in her pharmacy. Quite simply, the robots were designed to dispense packages of medication for the pharmacist. That way the pharmacist didn’t have to go through large closet and searching for the desired package. This captured Brantner imagination: “The idea of a robot which could handle individual and single items, and not only the whole box or tray, seemed like a good idea for industrial usage,” he explains.
Excited by the idea, Brantner shared his thoughts with friends Nikolas Engelhard and Lukas Zanger, and after a long creative process Magazino was born. The company was established in January 2014. Today, they develop and build perception-controlled, mobile robots named TORU, which are designed to navigate freely and dynamically amongst a human workforce. With TORU, individual objects are identified on shelves, localised by 2D and 3D cameras, securely grasped, and placed precisely at their desired destination.
The cost of employing robots
The most important factor for any employer looking to incorporate robots into the warehouse is the cost-per-pick. “For example,” says Brantner, “looking at the German market, €1.5bn is spent each year on manual picking; that’s huge. If one human picker costs approximately €33,000 per year and a robot which can do the same job costs €100,000, you can pay the cost of the machine off within three years.”
The robot of course doesn’t need to take holidays or lunch breaks and can work double-shifts; “basically the more it works, the quicker it will pay for itself.” And it doesn’t necessarily need to pick quicker than the human to make it cost-worthy although Brantner believes that in the not-too-distant future, robots will match and surpass the speed of the human. “Even those robots that pick at half the speed of a human can make up the cost in the fact that they can work twice as much in a day.”
Other than cost, robots offer an alternative to the current warehouse picking systems. In fact, systems today typically operate under either ‘Man to Goods’ or ‘Goods to Man’ models. “The former requires workers to walk to shelving areas and manually pick goods, which has a high dependence on the staff hired, with high salary and processing costs.” ‘Goods to Man’ systems address some of these issues by mechanically bringing shelving units to the front of warehouses for goods to be picked. Brantener explains that “these are typically inflexible in design, difficult to scale beyond initial specifications, and represent a high upfront investment for owners.” At Magazino, he has developed a third ‘pick-by-robot’ solution through his perception-controlled logistic robot, TORU.
Current warehouse picking systems are typically picking units operating on rails. “They use standardised carriers and complete recurring tasks set within very precise parameters. They are highly structured, and operate in static environments with absolutely minimised uncertainty in regard to how items are stacked and where they need to be placed.” The obvious downside of such systems is their inflexibility to changing needs, as well as the high upfront cost for owners. Additionally, as the processes for picking in these systems are highly prescribed and predetermined, “should there be any failure of any one step then the whole chain is broken and picking stops.” Humans are also unable to directly work alongside these systems, as they would create too many variables for the highly structured environments needed, which in the worst cases can lead to industrial accidents.
By contrast, TORU is designed to navigate freely between shelves designed for humans, complementing the regular workforce, and able to operate in and around environments with high levels of uncertainty. TORU operates between regular shelves, picking a wide range of individual objects using laser sensors at the front and rear to navigate and detect obstacles or humans in its way. According to Brantner, “TORU’s inherent flexibility allows it to adapt to novel objects, tasks and any warehouse in which it is placed. Its self contained nature makes them easily scalable, from one unit to as many as are required.” Additionally, TORU’s inbuilt task editor, database connectivity, and incorporation of cloud infrastructure makes it easy to adapt to new environments and changing needs as required.
Robots working alongside humans
TORU has two safety laser scanners, which can detect walls, the columns of shelves and also human legs which appear as two half circles. The laser not only provides a safety systems but is also used for building a map of the surroundings of the robot.
Brantner explains that when the laser sensors detect a human in their perimeter, the robot slows down its speed if it’s driving at that moment. “The closer the robot gets to the obstacle or human, the slower it drives until it eventually stops.” The ‘last line of defense’ to prevent a collision is the bumper sensor at the front and the rear. “If the robots somehow bumps into an obstacle, the driving motors stop immediately.”
In fact,TORU’s purpose is to work alongside human workforces, not to replace them. “TORU is designed to act as a colleague, by operating in and around workers, using advanced perception controls to avoid collisions.” Ans it can take over physically challenging tasks such as picking items from the highest or lowest shelf.
Brantner sees a bright future where humans and robots work together. He believes that robots are more likely to take over ‘tasks’ rather than entire jobs. “Based on what we currently know, robots are beginning to work alongside humans, performing useful but predictable and repetitive roles and are therefore freeing people up to do their jobs in a more efficient manner.” Car factories in Germany, for example, have used robots for welding car frames for decades now, and overall, this has increased productivity, leading to a growing industry still providing a huge number of jobs. Since these innovations, the field has advanced even further and “is beginning to produce robots which can integrate more fully into processes, perform a variety of tasks and understand and react to the world around them.”
Brantner explains that one key sector is e-commerce, “where the use of more complex robots, operating alongside trained workers, is a rapidly emerging scenario.” This can be attributed to the growing shift in consumer behaviour. In fact, according to PWC, 54% of consumers buy products online on a weekly or monthly basis, meaning that warehouses and fulfillment and distribution centres are having to scale rapidly in order to accommodate market demand. “It obviously helps that these structured environments are ideal for robots: even floors, steady lighting, regulated climate conditions and a population of trained personnel, mean risks are generally regarded as small-scale.” On the flip side of this, environments with a high degree of unpredictable factors, such as schools or hospitals, are unlikely to see the widespread integration of robots just yet, but “that’s not to say they never will.”
Ultimately, for Brantner it’s important to be mindful that development will come in stages and although technology is advancing at a fast pace, robotics is an extremely complex field. “It’s highly unlikely that in the near future there will be one type of humanoid robot that can do any number of tasks, from cleaning your household up to buying groceries in a crowded street.” It’s far more plausible that robots will be designed for very specific tasks “with high degrees of control and routine, enabling increased safety, efficiency and productivity for teams and workforces.
So, it seems that robotics is certainly here to stay, and “the positive news is that the evolution of this technology is, on the whole, allowing industries to achieve things faster and smarter.”