Synchronised automation is offering a solution to problems bedevilling automated processes across a broad range of industries, such as engineering, logistics, materials handling, pharmaceutical, warehousing, food & beverage and transport.

Global robotics and logistics automation technology leader Swisslog has found that as automation accelerates, a common concern is that if a machine goes offline, the entire system suffers. But this is becoming less and less of a problem through synchronised automation, which is a natural evolution of islands of automation, explains Martin Kohl, Senior Consultant at Swisslog.

Kohl has more than 18 years experience in global logistics automation. He says that the megatrends driving digitalisation and industry 4.0 – such as urbanisation, an ageing society, increased health focus, e-commerce, increasingly digital lives and regulations – mean that better technology utilisation is needed to optimise supply chains and achieve tangible benefits.

From islands of automation to synchronised automation

“The concept of islands of automation means users can have several automated processes working in isolation, which can be linked up with Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs), with end-to-end integration,” says Kohl. “Swisslog takes this one step further with its synchronised automation systems. The technologies are still separate, meaning that a problem with one machine won’t affect the whole system, but the major difference is that each island can talk to each other and work together to achieve efficiency benefits.”

The major benefits of this approach include:

  • Redundancy – If one cell goes down, there are several others accessible, or use of a temporary manual cell.
  • Flexibility for growth with additional cells, and ability to grow in specific areas.
  • Full integration of robots and AGVs.

Swisslog is currently working on a major logistics automation project in Sydney with leading robotics integrator Andrew Donald Design Engineering (ADDE) for bio-pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, where synchronised automation is being utilised to optimise flexibility and redundancy. This advanced solution involves ADDE’s robotic palletising, shrouding, wrapping and labelling technologies, linked with Swisslog’s platform AGVs on two levels to manage all pallet logistics.

Crucially, there are no major single points of failure in the system, with a manual cell used for redundancy if any process goes down temporarily, explains Kohl. “This is a great example of utilising synchronised automation, advanced robotics and platform AGVs to deliver benefits in efficiency, flexibility and redundancy.”

The future of warehouse automation

“When we think about the future of warehouse automation, fully automated case picking is the final mile to deliver end-to-end efficiency and traceability,” says Kohl.

Swisslog’s ACPaQ fully automated mixed pallet robot-based order picking system is an example of an advanced warehouse automation technology that utilises islands of automation to deliver mixed-case, store-ready pallets for end customers. Coca-Cola Amatil is one globally recognised company that uses Swisslog’s ACPaQ mixed pallet robot-based order picking system. The ACPaQ technology analyses and processes data and optimises the best stacking pattern, to ensure stability. The system can also build the pallet in reverse drop sequence for replenishment at store level.

“This is a perfect example of an end-to-end supply chain that optimises how product moves through the system while maintaining reliability and traceability throughout,” says Kohl.

Human-robot collaboration

Another example that’s changing the way companies are thinking about automation is human-robot collaboration.

“When we think of robots, we typically think of repeatable tasks being automated with a robot in a fenced off cell,” says Kohl. “This thinking is being completely shifted by human-robot collaboration, which allows humans to continue doing what they’re best at, and the robots assisting where possible. For example, in the automotive industry, a robot can be carefully positioned in just the right area by an operator, then the robot performs a torque screwing application.”

Automation has always been utilised for gains in efficiency and improvements in process, but the way automation is implemented is crucial to optimising its benefits. According to Kohl, Swisslog’s synchronised automation and human-robot collaboration technologies are two of many innovative ways that automation can be used differently for genuine benefits in efficiency, quality and safety.