DHL Supply Chain has a broad innovation agenda for its warehouses, including the use of augmented reality, AGVs, robotics and everything in between. One labor-intensive task DHL is looking to automate at its warehouse in Beringe, Netherlands is manual picking. To do so, DHL worked with Robomotive, an industrial automation specialist in the Netherlands, to create a state-of-the-art robot cell that performs de-palletizing, picking and order-fulfillment functions with the help of a 3D vision system.
At the center of the automated picking cell, which can be run 24/7, is a Yaskawa Motoman MH180-120 industrial robot and a Zivid One 3D color camera. The MH180-120, which is faster than a collaborative robot, usually has a blue color. But DHL ordered a custom version to match the company’s familiar yellow color. The robot has a reach of 3 meters and lifts up to 120 kg. DHL said that with one robot, four pallets and 25m pick front can be reached on a flow rack. At press time, the cell was able to achieve 400 picks per hour, which DHL hopes to increase to 600 picks per hour by further optimizing the robot cell.
The key to this application, Robomotive said, is that the picking is done without the need for master data or prior learning of the product. Many times in the logistics industry, Robomotive said, CAD data does not exist for every item or it is inaccurate. Robomotive developed software to separate all types of products without needing prior information.
“Deep learning companies say they need 1,000 examples to learn the product. We don’t need any learning,” said Michael Vermeer, CEO and founder of Robomotive. “We have standard geometrical approaches that can detect separate objects and pick them one by one.”
The robotic system, which took about six months to get up and running after the purchase order in January 2018, scans the location at the time of picking and can identify individual boxes. Learning and master data are not necessary, allowing items to be exchanged easily and quickly.
“Manual picking is labor intensive and physically strenuous and has a small chance of errors,” added Sebastiaan Bolt, Site manager of DHL Supply Chain. “This picking robot takes over this repetitive work so that our people can concentrate on more complex tasks.”
According to Robomotive, DHL’s robotic system has a payback period of about three years when it is used during regular day shifts. If it was used 24/7, however, the return on investment would be even quicker. “Without reprogramming, the items in the flow racks and on the pallets in the picking cell can be replaced by new top sellers, allowing us to respond even more quickly to changes in demand, for example as a result of sales promotions or consumer trends,” said Tjalling de Vries, Innovation lead of DHL Supply Chain.
3D vision finding more homes
Robomotive comes from the automotive world where it has integrated robots for 20-plus years. About seven years ago, Robomotive started adding 3D vision to industrial robots to make them more flexible like humans. “People have hand-eye coordination, which makes them more flexible,” Vermeer said. “We are trying to mimic that hand-eye coordination with 3D vision cameras to put robots in more places.”
Robomotive has been running similar applications for some time, especially in production environments for bin picking. But DHL wanted a generic solution in a larger area of application in a traditional warehouse with flow racks and pallets. According to the companies involved in this project, it is DHL’s first fully automated e-commerce order picking robot cell.
“We are only at the beginning of a far‐reaching robotization in our warehouses, with which we will bring our operations to the next level of efficiency and employee satisfaction,” said Mark Kruysen, Operations Excellence Director, DHL Supply Chain. “With this focus on innovation, we will be able to better serve our customers.”
Robomotive has tested a lot of cameras, specifically evaluating how they performed with shiny parts, dark parts and in environments with poor lighting conditions. With the success of this project, DHL is now looking at new applications for this type of robot cell.
“Every place you need material handling and to replace human hand-eye coordination, a robot with a 3D vision camera and gripper will be applicable,” said Vermeer. “There is a shortage of hands to do these materials handling jobs, so we are filling in that shortage.”
Vermeer said the logistics industry has a lot to learn from the automotive world, where they have robots working for them 24/7. Fortunately for DHL, they have already started the process.