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Robots must become mobile, so as to meet the requirements for flexible production in Industry 4.0 – and the young Austrian start-up incubed IT is at the forefront in development of self-navigating transport robots. The company, based in Hart near Graz, has just made a big international breakthrough with its Smart Shuttles.

These shuttles possess intelligence

What’s special about these vehicles from incubed IT is that they can navigate freely on their own. But it’s not as simple as it sounds – to achieve this, the company has spent a huge sum on development of control software that allows the transport shuttles to select their targets and drive to them autonomously, with the aim of attaining the greatest possible efficiency. The shuttles orient themselves in space by means of a laser scanner, and require no further orientation aids such as reflectors or guidelines.

Already winners of the Robotics Award at HANNOVER MESSE incubed IT has now also received many other prizes. And more than this – the company, only founded in 2011 – is already supplying its innovative robotics to well-known international production and trading companies, including Procter & Gamble Berlin, installation specialists Würth, a major automotive manufacturer, Danish agro-trade organisation Grene, Spar Austria and a German public-sector production plant.

Everything else works just like people do…

Michael Reip, Head of Engineering Robotics at incubed IT, describes how the mobile transport robots operate: “Initially a single shuttle drives once through the entire operational area and ‘takes a good look around’, while in the process drawing a map for itself that is then transmitted to all the shuttles in the fleet. Everything else then proceeds just as it would with humans.” In other words: The shuttle knows exactly where it is and can use the map to work out for itself how to get from A to B, coordinating things with the other shuttles. “If obstacles crop up en route, such as a person, a crate, or another shuttle, this is detected by means of a laser scanner”. The shuttle can then decide whether it has enough room to drive around the obstacle. If not, it must check the map to see whether there is an alternate route to its goal. “If there is a way around the obstacle, the shuttle will find it,” says Reip.

The difference between this and previous normal non-autonomous driverless transport systems is obvious: the latter move strictly along pre-defined paths. If its way is blocked, the vehicle cannot continue, other vehicles pile up behind it, and the whole system is disrupted. The advantage of a flexible system is that transport can always proceed as long as there is a navigable path open so the robot can reach its goal. This increases the overall availability of the system – another reason why Manufacturing 4.0 has been waiting precisely robots like these.

More efficient, just-in-time

However, the main attractions are their flexibility and their ability to provide logistics efficiently for even the smallest batch sizes. “The days are gone”, says Reip, “in which the same routes were used year after year. Often there is only a single product that needs to be taken from a given source to a specific destination, and this is exactly what is now possible with these mobile systems”. All that’s needed is for a map to be drawn of the operational area – then handover points are specified with a mouse-click – and after that, any desired orders can be given to the Fleet Management System. “The system then selects the best shuttle for the order, and the shuttle immediately carries it out.” It makes no difference to the system whether an order is given and a one-off basis, or repeated over and over again for 10 years.

The options for using Smart Shuttles are almost limitless. Any kind of production and logistics transport can be carried out, and they increase efficiency virtually wherever they are used. “Up to now it has been very difficult to automate production transport on a large scale, because we didn’t want to equip the machines with conveyor belts”, says Reip. “Thus we were forced to carry out most transport tasks manually – and so we tried to limit these transport tasks to a minimum. This in turn meant that we needed to create large material buffer-stores around the machines themselves.” His company’s Smart Shuttles can use the same routes as are already used for maintenance, servicing and other traffic. And because the shuttle can simply make several journeys, it doesn’t need to be able to transport huge amounts, and consequently no large buffer-stores are needed. This is a significant step on the path to just-in-time production and storage logistics.