Picking, Packing, Palletizing – All Fully Automated
The vast majority of warehouses around the world are still operated by hand. But robots are taking over more and more tasks – from packing and unpacking to loading trucks. The automation service provider Trapo, among others, is making sure of this.
In the new production and storage hall of the Jermi cheese plant in Laupheim in Upper Swabia, forklifts, ants, or trolleys no longer drive around. Instead, autonomous transport robots bring the different cheeses to individual production islands, where they are packaged accordingly or provided with the appropriate labels. An autonomous truck loading system also transports the automatically palletized goods to the truck at the ramp. This comes from the manufacturer Trapo based in Gescher, west of Münster, which played a major role in equipping the new halls at Jermi.
For Stefan Kurtenbach, head of development at Trapo, such integrated robot systems are the future – whether in cheese production or in the Amazon warehouse. Transport robots are not necessarily faster than a forklift driver, who often enough “moves at the limits of physics,” says the engineer with a doctorate. But their advantage is that they are “reliable and always available” – and thus considerably more efficient. They also eliminate the risk of accidents associated with forklift traffic, which should not be underestimated. At Jermi, several of the company's own Trapo Transport Shuttles and a TLS3600 truck loader are currently whizzing through the hall. The latter recently won an award for its innovation: All the driver has to do is log on to the ramp via a touchscreen, and the robot is off and running.
Until now, automated warehouses of this kind have been the exception. The TLS series, for example, has only been developed by Trapo in the past two years and was recently released. The market is still in its infancy, says Kurtenbach, “We'll probably have years or even decades of work to do here.”
Picking using automated pick and pack systems, on the other hand, is now commonplace in the warehouse. “Whereby this does not mean that it is not challenging,” says the manager. That’s because individual grippers have to be developed for each application to enable “safe connection.” Whether a product is gripped, clamped, sucked, or connected magnetically is decided on an individual basis. And sometimes very special solutions are needed. For example, Kurtenbach explains, the company once had to automatically pick, pack, and palletize sensitive ceramic filters – “at a rate of 900 per minute. Neither gripper jaws nor suction cups could be used. In the end, a solution was developed for suction with a high-volume flow, “somewhat comparable to a vacuum cleaner.”
The pharmaceutical industry also has special requirements, for which Trapo has developed several solutions. Here, for example, ampoules have to be brought in for filling and be depalletized. Above all, however, the environments often have to be sterile and meet cleanroom requirements. Then drives and belts have to be encapsulated so that abrasions cannot escape anywhere, explains Kurtenbach.
And how does the expert envision the warehouse of the future? Can automation go even further here? “The most important driver for all innovations in this area is to make warehouses more flexible,” the expert is convinced. Up to now, warehouses have been characterized by fixed racking areas and defined paths and processes. The latter could be broken up by more flexible transport systems – “be it maglev trains under the ceiling or a swarm of drones,” Kurtenbach looks to the future.
First, however, Trapo wants to repeat the success of automatic truck loading – and for parcels. So far, this has only worked with pallets. But loading and unloading parcels is an equally important market, he says. “Every single parcel that you order somewhere online has so far been loaded and unloaded by hand,” says Kurtenbach, “often multiple times.” There's no question that robots could provide plenty of relief here.
Trapo has existed since 1957 and produces at its main location in Gescher, currently with 180 employees on 13,000 square meters of production space. There are further locations near Venice as well as in Atlanta.