Automation technology has rarely experienced such a fundamental transformation before than at present—massively influenced by increasing digitization of all areas of value creation. It begins with the ordering of goods, which increasingly takes place online. These developments bring new challenges for the shipment of goods and especially for the handling technology used fulfill these needs. Gripping systems are taking on a key position as the interface to the product: If they do not function reliably, even the most sophisticated automation processes in the warehouse may stall.
The driving factor for increasingly modern automation systems is not only new technological possibilities—it’s primarily driven by the customers: They demand individualized products that should be available in the desired amount, at the right place and as quickly as possible. Companies are adapting by increasingly networking their factories, designing intelligently, gearing toward efficiency and organizing as flexibly as possible within the framework of Industry 4.0.
In the case of warehouses, the setup of a warehouse and the connected processes used to be predictable to a large extent, but nowadays companies must prepare themselves for changing conditions. As the goods structure changes constantly, orders frequently do not resemble each other at all. Incidentally, this applies to business-to-business transactions as much as it does to business-to-consumer transactions. The leader in the goods groups was the clothing sector, followed by electronic items/telecommunications and books/e-books. Online dealers such as Amazon are also required to organize their warehouses as flexibly as possible to reach the highest possible degree of delivery flexibility and accuracy. The vision: an autonomous, self-thinking and self-acting warehouse.
But what does this vision mean for automation and gripping technology in particular? “The demand for gripping technology is increasing enormously,” said Walter Dunkmann, head of Business Unit Vacuum Automation at J. Schmalz GmbH. The vacuum specialist has been actively involved for years in designing gripping technology that can lead to more intelligent, efficient and flexible production processes. The company recently brought a vacuum and pressure switch to the market, for example, which sends important process information via NFC (Near Field Communication) directly to the user’s smartphone or tablet. Schmalz is also working on various solutions for the vision of an autonomous warehouse and cooperates closely with research institutes, customers and other market partners. “Conventional gripper systems are generally limited to a defined handling task by the gripper and the control technology. In addition, they can only be adjusted to changing requirements to a limited degree,” Dunkmann said. “Robots do not only have to be mobile in an autonomous warehouse, but they must also be able to deal with constantly changing conditions: For example, they must be able to grip many different goods in exact numbers—from books to shoe boxes to electronic items. At the same time, the warehouse needs systems that bring intelligence, deliver information and learn and work together with the humans on site—potentially to the point of human-robotic cooperation.
Schmalz, therefore, offers a large range of solutions that can significantly optimize such automation processes—from single components such as vacuum generators or switches all the way through to complete gripping systems. Their range integrates diverse functions: Intelligent vacuum generators, for example, are equipped with energy and process control. This allows energy consumption to be controlled and optimized, among other features. Conventional vacuum generation by compressed air is put to the limits in the autonomous warehouse. “Often, compressed air is only available at a few sites or not available at all in shipping dealer warehouses,” Dunkmann explained. “If compressed air is available, it is always accompanied by hoses.”
Schmalz is introducing a new technological development: a gripper with vacuum generation that does not use compressed air. The vacuum is generated electronically from a battery and is fully functional without expensive compressed air. This makes the gripper both energy efficient and mobile. It can also be used with mobile and self-sufficient robots, which pick production orders at various locations in the warehouse. The hose guide is completely integrated into the gripper—so there are no interference contours that could affect the process. Furthermore, Schmalz provides various modular connections from its wide range of vacuum end effectors, in order to be able to handle different products reliably and safely.
“Our grippers with vacuum generation also have the required intelligence,” Dunkmann said. They communicate bidirectionally over an IO-Link interface to the higher-level control unit and are equipped with functions for energy and process control. This provides information that can help promptly detect creeping changes in the gripping system or avoid impending failures. The information can then be collected in central cloud services, which holds added benefit for the user because they can draw conclusions on the automation process and optimize it further.
“Our task as specialists in gripping technology is to recognize trends such as the autonomous warehouse early on and support our customers with innovative solutions,” Dunkmann said. “We are ‘the front’ of the gripping process; the hand of the robot. Therefore, the challenge is especially large. If the gripping technology does not work, the whole automation process ceases. But we are happy to take on this challenge, as shown by our new technological innovation for vacuum generation without compressed air.”