AGV technology may be old news. But retrofitting an agnostic automation system onto a commercial, high capacity forklift to perform complex tasks? That’s brand new and totally unique. Jenny Baker reports.
YOUNG robotics technology company INRO and dairy giant Fonterra Co-operative Group recently implemented automated guided vehicle (AGV) technology with a difference at Fonterra’s Kauri plant in Whangarei.
The result of INRO and Fonterra’s five-year R&D partnership, the new technology ups the bar for warehouse automation in a number of ways.
First, the technology is literally portable. It consists of an automation suite retrofitted on a forklift. Second, the suite automates any brand and size of internal combustion, LPG, or electric forklift, including counterbalance and reach trucks.
Third, the resulting automated forklift can perform a comprehensive range of complex tasks with large or unstructured loads for indoor warehouse operations moving palletised product. Fourth, it allows for full, fast dual use.
INRO marketing manager William Pryde says the INRO automated forklift works best in a standardized environment. It can integrate with an existing warehouse management system, but can also operate in an environment serviced only by manually operated forklifts.
“INRO automation technology is clearly differentiated over both traditional automation alternatives such as AGVs and AS/RS, and manually driven forklifts.
“It provides a safe, versatile, and low risk automation alternative with an attractive return on investment. Our value proposition is unique. Our technology combines the best of automation – safety, accuracy, repeatability, lower product and warehouse damage, savings on labour costs, with higher speeds and increased functionality.
“We retain all the existing capability of the forklift, while it can still be driven manually if required. This means the same vehicle suddenly can be utilised in a lot more ways and provide greater return on investment,” he says.
Pryde explains how the technology works. A unit is fitted on a forklift. It consists of an on-board computer loaded with robotic automation software that taps into the forklift’s hydraulic systems and directs it what to do. “The product itself is essentially based around advanced software designed to be able to automate complex tasks in dynamic warehouse environments.
“The system works by adding intelligence to the vehicle. It works with and integrates with cameras, SICK-brand lasers and sensors on the vehicle and the vehicle design itself. In addition, it works with and integrates into the existing warehouse layout and management system to provide a flexible automation solution.”
The technology includes navigation software to determine accurate positioning in the warehouse, and patented product sensing technology to understand and manipulate the product itself and deal with any variability.
The application of the additional software and technology in a retrofitted solution is a big step forward in warehouse automation. Traditionally AGVs have been constrained by their inability to self navigate their surroundings and handle different task requirements. Using them required often complex and costly changes to the operating area’s infrastructure, such as special sensors.
“The biggest challenge remains being able to deal with the variability in environment, product, tasks, as well as vehicle type to provide a working solution that adds value,” says Pryde.
How it all began
Although some of the technology is from industrial suppliers, Pryde says the INRO team developed most the software itself to utilise these technologies to make the vehicle move and perform tasks. However, to understand the origin of the team’s technology, it is necessary to understand its history.
He says it all started with a competition. In 2005 a group of mainly post graduate engineering students from Auckland University began designing robotic vehicle automation technology to automate a 4WD Nissan Terrano to compete in the prestigious DARPA Grand Challenge Race for driverless vehicles in the US Mojave Desert.
“Although the capability of the vehicle to compete was proven, we were too broke to ship it over. Instead the team developed an agnostic retrofittable automation kit which could be attached to a vehicle there,” recalls Pryde. The team passed the early stages of the competition that required it to show automatic control over video, but in the end did not make it to the race.
However, the emergency patch proved to be a winner in its own right, giving rise to INRO’s patented retrofit automation technology. At the time, Fonterra had been looking around for AGV solutions to suit the company’s specific requirements. Available technology did not provide the functionality its operations needed, and replacing its fleet with purpose built units would have been a costly process.
In 2006 INRO presented a concept for an automated forklift to Fonterra. The value of the innovative INRO product over other formats of automation was obvious to the Fonterra team. The technology presented the potential for scalable deployment, which made it eminently suited to accommodate Fonterra’s seasonal variations in throughput while increasing the company’s supply chain efficiency.
The Foundation for Research, Science, and Technology, and Fonterra granted INRO research funds and access to Fonterra’s Morrinsville mechanical and electrical workshop to develop the automated forklift for commercialisation. In 2007, INRO moved into premises in Penrose. The team began a testing regime with their first counterbalanced forklift in a simulated warehouse set.
In 2009 the INRO team developed new automation software to automate reach trucks for use in distribution centres and high-racked environments. This broadened the product’s access to a greater market opportunity for public and private distribution centres, rather than only end-of-manufacturing-line applications.
In late 2010, in what the team believes to be a world first, INRO automated two five tonne Linde counterbalance forklifts at Fonterra’s Kauri site. The forklifts work around the clock, are integrated with the warehouse management system and factory automation software, and handle all products and consumable movements completely autonomously.
The two Lindes handle around 300 tonnes of product a day. The work involves shifting different product types in multiple formats from three production lines, as well as replenishing pallets and bulk bins on conveyor in-feeds as required.
INRO researched and analysed the techniques and habits of forklift operators retrieving and stacking product at the Kauri site to enable them to develop control software that could make an automated forklift replicate these actions accurately. The software prioritises various activities to determine which tasks are assigned to which vehicle. INRO also uses the Inview user interface which provides real time product location data and vehicle position and fuel state. This enables operators to easily change how and where products are stored, enabling dynamic product handling and storage.
Lift and travel speeds are faster than other automated vehicle technology and the navigation system combined with a strict movement control system ensure the big vehicles move safely and accurately without a driver.
“This is a giant leap ahead for logistics businesses that have existing infrastructure but cannot justify putting in an ASRS,” says a spokesperson for Fonterra. “It allows an increase in productivity and safety in the warehouse without the traditional costs associated with automation.”
Pryde says the technology is attracting attention from global logistics operations including third-party providers and manufacturers. He also believes there are significant commercial opportunities for this technology in other markets.
R&D continues to focus on new applications for the technology and capabilities that were traditionally considered too complex for automation – including truck and container loading and operating in cold storage environments, as well as automation of new vehicle models.
“Our team is driven by the possibilities that exist in robotic automation and aim to make INRO the global leader in vehicle based robotic automation by 2015,” says Pryde.
Fonterra is now a major shareholder in INRO.
Jenny Baker is an Auckland-based freelance writer.
Wanted: Skilled engineers
INRO faces not only engineering challenges, but another dire challenge that many other New Zealand companies know all about: the struggle to find suitably qualified and experienced workers.
The company’s growth since 2005 has been spectacular. Even during the worst of the recession, it had no problem finding venture capital and supporters. It now employs 27 workers, but need more. Says marketing manager William Pryde: “We’re a rapid growth company with exceptional opportunities in the materials handling industry, as highlighted by the interest we’ve received from customers and OEMs alike.
“Through game-changing robotics we have created a unique materials handling automation solution. We already have a skilled team and utilise university links to get the best and brightest in engineering and robotics field.
“However, we are desperate for skilled and enthusiastic software and mechatronic engineers as well as project managers to help develop the next step in robotic automation and build what we want to be a world class centre for robotics in New Zealand.”
For more information about the company and employment opportunities, visit www.inro.co.nz