Text & photos: Julian Borchert-al-Huribi
Anyone who walked through the halls of "automatica" at the end of June 2023 got a very authentic impression of the direction in which the future of production and our working world have developed and will develop. More than 650 exhibitors from 34 countries made it unmistakably clear in times of shortages of skilled workers, competitive and cost pressures: transport and production of goods in factories across all industries are becoming increasingly automated. While stationary robots perform highly specialized work on a piecework basis, their mobile machine colleagues take over material transport within the factory halls.
The focus at the Munich-based world-leading fair for automation and robotics was particularly on the latter. In a large-scale mesh-up entitled "Mobile Robots in Production," ten different intralogistics players demonstrated that automated intralogistics transport is far from being a thing of the future. Eight mobile robot manufacturers, including Continental, Omron, SEW Eurodrive, Safelog, and Still, alongside production facility automator Hahn Automation and SYNAOS, showcased their practicality and already established automation technologies in the industry during this showcase.
During the mesh-up, the SYNAOS Intralogistics Management Platform (IMP) served as the central control for the heterogeneous robot fleet consisting of AGVs, AMRs, and automated production facilities. The 850-square-meter showcase area depicted the multi-stage production process of battery manufacturing, including subsequent quality control. Within this scenario, various mobile robots transported batteries from one handling station to another. Automated forklifts transporting stacks of wooden pallets were also part of the fleet controlled by the SYNAOS IMP. The highlight was the automatic insertion of the produced battery into a flashlight, which was then given away as a gift.
Such mesh-ups, where different intralogistics players come together to demonstrate the interplay of hardware and software, are increasingly gaining popularity. However, a mesh-up can truly convince only when experienced live on-site, emphasized Anja H. Schneider, Exhibition Director of automatica. "Trying to simulate such an event virtually, which we as trade fair organizers were forced to do during the pandemic, does not work. automatica is a visually impactful fair with many robots moving, interacting with each other, and even with visitors. People want to experience such things directly."
The mesh-up, coordinated by the VDMA Association of Materials Handling and Intralogistics together with SYNAOS, sent out an important signal. "For us, this was an incredibly exciting showcase that we presented in collaboration with VDMA and SYNAOS. Mobile robotics has always been an essential part of robotics. While other trade fairs focus more on logistics, it was crucial for automatica to shine a spotlight on mobile robotics. The AGV mesh-up, as the interface between mobile robotics and production in battery manufacturing, was a significant enrichment for the fair. Witnessing a heterogeneous fleet of mobile robots from different manufacturers sharing the same workspace, utilizing it, and communicating with each other was genuinely impressive," Schneider added.
However, despite the promising prospects evident at automatica, some visitors might have wondered about the global standards set by the German robotics and automation industry. They might have questioned whether German companies risk falling behind those located in countries that have prioritized automation and digitization for a long time, thanks to political support. "Germany undoubtedly faces challenges that demand a prudent industrial policy. Nevertheless, I remain highly optimistic: Germany is not lagging behind technologically in any way," said Schneider. "The Munich region is currently attracting many software companies, fostering a vibrant start-up community. At automatica, numerous leading German industrial firms in the robotics sector were also present. Additionally, we were thrilled that the Google subsidiary Intrinsic consciously chose our fair for the exclusive launch of their product. This sends a strong signal for the European machinery and plant engineering industry."
Intrinsic aims to democratize robotics through intuitively operable software for creating robotics applications. At the fair, the Alphabet subsidiary showcased its product Flowstate and a modular robot.
"The mesh-up was a real eye-catcher, showing visitors what is already possible today in terms of intralogistics automation," said Dr. Lennart Bochmann, CPO, and founder of SYNAOS. "It made the world of autonomous mobile intralogistics truly experiential and tangible for visitors and industry experts." The communication between robots and software during the mesh-up was enabled by the standardized interface VDA 5050. Bochmann emphasized the importance of a communication standard, stating, "The mesh-up not only highlighted intralogistics automation but also demonstrated that mobile robotics have reached the market and production readiness. Moreover, the standardized VDA 5050 interface, allowing for the control of mobile robots from various manufacturers regardless of brand, is ready for productive use in the industry."
While there are other similar standards worldwide, they are not as advanced in development as VDA 5050. "Even if other standards were to prevail, we would welcome that. For customers, it would be much better and more efficient than having to integrate the proprietary interfaces of each mobile robot separately," said Bochmann. Currently, SYNAOS observes that European major companies are increasingly adopting VDA 5050 in their American or Asian facilities, and no robots are purchased without VDA 5050 integration. "With the VDA 5050, we brought together all intralogistics players on a single platform during the mesh-up. Mobile robot companies are serious about scaling mobile robotics. The mesh-up was a great success for all of us, and we can be proud of it."
SYNAOS' Mobile Robot partners share similar positive assessments. Sven Kaluza, Business Development Manager Robotics at Omron, remarked, "Intralogistics means full speed ahead nowadays. You can no longer compete with just one manufacturer covering all models. We must be able to enter partnerships to help the customer solve their intralogistics tasks together. With such mesh-ups, we showcase the milestones we jointly develop and achieve."
Regarding VDA 5050, SYNAOS partners like Omron are receiving more and more international inquiries. "European, Asian, and American companies are asking us: Can you do 5050? We respond, 'Yes, we can!'" Kaluza draws a fitting comparison in this context, "Consider the development of the videocassette standard many years ago. The VHS standard outperformed the others and prevailed. However, not because it was technically superior, but because the alliance behind it was powerful. We see a similar development now with VDA 5050. When the many international visitors to automatica see the mesh-up, they take away the message: The 'D' in VDA stands not only for Germany but also for a great solution that excellently orchestrates mixed fleets."
For Continental's Mobile Robots Division, the mesh-up marked a premiere. "We demonstrated for the first time that we are integrated and fully controllable with the SYNAOS fleet manager," said Daniel Willuweit, Head of Sales & Marketing at Continental Mobile Robots. Speaking about the possibilities with VDA 5050, Willuweit predicted, "I believe that the future of the mobile robotics market lies in maximum flexibility to provide customers with the most flexible and best-fitting solutions. VDA 5050 is the key today to connect fleet managers and robot manufacturers." Continental's Mobile Robots Division will continue to drive this standard forward. "This mesh-up was an excellent opportunity to showcase the flexibility of the systems working together. We saw how various robots can collaborate within a system and how well the traffic management functions."
The message that viewers should take away from this practical robot spectacle is succinctly put by SYNAOS CEO and founder Dr. Wolfgang Hackenberg: "The importance and awareness of mobile robotics are growing. Therefore, it was essential for us to be visible to the industry at this event. The robots that drove on the mesh-up are the same ones that are already operating in factories today. Together with our Mobile Robot partners, we demonstrated that the control of integrated, i.e., heterogeneous, robot fleets is effortlessly possible." SYNAOS also proves this with the control of large fleets in the industry. "We also wanted to show: the market is ready, customer problems can be solved, and there is nothing standing in the way of further automation. There is no longer enough workforce willing to perform monotonous tasks like simple transport runs, and this increases the need for automation."
Hackenberg strikes a chord: While robots used to be perceived as potentially eliminating jobs, the scarcity of skilled labor has now become a similar but more existential threat to companies. They risk losing revenue or even relevance because there is no workforce available to handle simple or monotonous tasks and transport within warehouses and factories.
Sascha Schmel, Managing Director of the VDMA's Materials Handling and Intralogistics Association, underlines that mobile robotics does not exist in a vacuum but directly benefits people through optimized - and automated - intralogistics processes. The coronavirus pandemic has even accelerated demand for automated logistics solutions. "Intralogistics, especially due to the pandemic, has been recognized as a crucial pillar of civil life. To be resilient against events like a pandemic, automation has firmly established itself in the technology strategies of users and suppliers." Looking back at the past decade, the association has noted a significant acceleration in automation efforts in intralogistics.
Looking back at the past decade, the association has noted a significant acceleration in automation efforts in intralogistics. According to industry expert Schmel, the VDMA now observes a clear trend toward more automation of manually controlled vehicles in intralogistics: "Things are falling into place. A high level of automation in intralogistics has been present for a long time in fixed facilities such as high-bay warehouses. But now, both technologies are merging where mobile machines like forklifts are replaced by driverless transport systems like AGVs. This is where we currently see the most significant and visible innovation dynamics."
In this context, Schmel also emphasizes the important role of a communication standard: "This showcase very well demonstrates the unified communication interface VDA 5050 between driverless transport vehicles and a common fleet manager. The development of this interface frees up certain resources. Division of labor and open-source collaboration are essential keys to maintaining our position at the forefront of the world, despite the skilled labor shortage."
Such a mesh-up makes the future of intralogistics within reach—not metaphorically, but literally. The ten intralogistics players demonstrated to visitors what is already possible today in terms of intralogistics automation with different resources—at a time when the German robotics and automation industry is predicted to experience a record revenue increase to €16.2 billion by the end of 2023. Experts estimate the global market value for Mobile Robots to surpass $70 billion by 2030. However, that is indeed a vision of the future.