Improving the interface between man and warehouse robot

«Stop airhousing, start warehousing» is the motto of cube storage and warehouse robot pioneer AutoStore. The Norwegian company is pushing the envelope of logistics, designing automated storage and retrieval systems with binpicking robots criss-crossing on top of a gigantic Rubics Cube. Specialists from Data Respons R&D Services are assisting the AutoStore in-house development team in taking warehousing to the next level.

AutoStore Conveyor Port closeup

More than 850 AutoStore systems and 37.000 robots are busy 24/7 around the world, enabling automated warehouse operations and super-fast web shop delivery. All that with not only speed and efficiency in mind but optimizing storage space as well. As they say at AutoStore: “Wasted space is a thing of the past”, and

its system, of robots on a grid on top of a giant cube of storage bins, is in operation in some of the largest and most efficient warehouses in the world.

AutoStore is continuously running development projects, for instance related to VLS, Very Large Systems, aiming to operate much more robots simultaneously than possible today. These very large infrastructures require increased stability of all components in the system, to minimize downtime.

Another area of innovation is adapting the AutoStore technology to the grocery sector, and to refrigerated warehouses. This requires robustifying hardware and electronics to be able to cope with low temperatures and condensation.  However, the Data Respons engineers currently assisting the AutoStore development team, are focusing on something completely different: Improving the interface between warehouse robots and humans.

Next generation workstationConveyor

Says Øystein Gjerdevik, manager of the AutoStore R&D Port and Picking Group:

  • When our robots have found the bins with the items ordered, they deliver them to a workstation. In AutoStore we call the workstation ports. This is where the operators pick the items from the bin and place them in a delivery box.
  • We have a number of ports in our portfolio, designed for different requirements. Currently we are focusing on the one we call the ConveyorPort. It’s the simplest of our workstations, and it has been with almost since the beginning. Now we’re working on upgrading and redesigning it, and this is where Data Respons comes in.

Fully-fledged team members

According to Gjerdevik, the advantage of engaging Data Respons engineers in this effort, is their ability to contribute with their own ideas and suggestions. And not least the fact that they are fully integrated in AutoStore’s own development team.

  • It’s difficult to outsource this kind of tasks to external third parties. We start our development projects very early. We know what we want to achieve, but at that stage, we’re not able to define the exact technical solution to all the problems. We work with an agile mindset and by trial and error. And that’s not something you can define in a work package and outsource.
  • This approach works really well for us internally, and that’s why we’re so happy with the Data Respons people in our team. They work alongside us as fully-fledged team members. They are competent people with a lot of ideas, and they’re not afraid of suggesting alternatives to what we’ve come up with ourselves.

Technical upgrade

The Data Respons team is rethinking the ConveyorPort on many levels. For instance, they are giving it a thorough technical upgrade. Its electronics are being redesigned, and on the mechanical side, conventional electric motors are being replaced with brushless and therefore abrasion proof alternatives.

Also, new sensor solutions are being implemented, and the user interface of the workstation is being reworked and improved. Ergonomics are important, such as adjustable working height, tilting of boxes for easier handling etc.

Another priority is making the next generation ConveyorPort modular. Modularity is a basic AutoStore design principle, making it easy and fast to e.g., remove a malfunctioning robot from the grid and replace it with a new one. Modularity is crucial to securing the maximum efficiency and uptime of the system. When it comes to ports, especially on smaller sites with only one or two ports, the port can become a pain point if it fails. To eliminate that bottleneck, the aim for the next generation ConveyorPort is to be able to replace an entire port in 15 minutes.

And finally, the new design restricts the operators access to hazardous moving parts such as belts and cogwheels.

  • Our Data Respons specialists are contributing to solving all the technical challenges mentioned, and I would like to commend them. They are highly competent, and they bring a lot of ideas and creativity to the table. And although this is only one out of a number of development projects here at AutoStore, I would be surprised if we wouldn’t be continuing to collaborate with Data Respons, when we need additional developer resources to supplement our own in-house development team, concludes Gjerdevik