January 12, 2013
Ask most any automation engineer about the toughest logistics challenge in a warehouse or distribution center and a finger will immediately point towards the loading dock.
“While much of the warehouse has benefitted from automation, the loading dock is still primarily a manual operation,” says Kevin Ambrose, CEO at Wynright Corporation, an automation integrator headquartered in Elk Grove, Illinois.
“It is very difficult, labor-intensive work, often in intense heat or cold, which can make it a limiting factor to the overall efficiency of the warehouse. These working conditions, coupled with handling heavy product can also lead to injuries among warehouse personnel.”
Ambrose speaks from experience: Wynright, in the top twenty of the world’s largest logistics engineering companies, has automated such retail giants as Converse, Tootsie Roll Industries, and Crate & Barrel, including a twenty-year relationship with PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay Brands, whose 48,000 employees bring in over $13B in business annually. In short, Wynright has seen lots of logistics workers and lots of loading docks!
Founded in 1972 as Warehouse Equipment, Inc., the company re-branded itself as Wynright in January 2009, which must have been a lucky charm because its sales have broken company records ever since. Between 2010 and this year, revenue increased some 60 percent to $216M from $135M. Interestingly, it also recorded a 125 percent increase in sales for its robotic systems.
The changing face of logistics operations
The real lucky charm for the company is more than likely that of online sales. Ambrose agrees: The rise in electronic commerce has “completely changed the landscape” of the material handling industry, he says. It’s an industry that in the U.S. alone is a robust $150B annually.
Since more consumers are choosing to forego brick-and-mortar stores and purchase items online, Wynright is seeing its business boom as companies expand their handling systems to fill orders both for store inventory and for individual consumers.
According to Forrester Research, online shoppers in the United States will spend $327B in 2016, up 45 percent from $226B this year. In 2016, electronic sales will account for 9 percent of total retail sales, up from 7 percent in both 2012 and 2011.
And now mobile e-commerce has gotten into the flow of electronic purchasing. After a rather modest 2011, people buying via Smartphone has catapulted into an $11B business in 2012, which translates into more orders being brought to more loading docks sent to more customers who all want their orders in a hurry.
The fallout is rippling through every supply chain everywhere here and abroad as more businesses start scrambling for faster, better, more efficient productivity. Robotics is fast becoming an integral part of that scramble.
All the millions of new electronic purchases, of course, need to pass through loading docks on their way to customers, hence, the renewed emphasis at automating this last frontier of logistics, and consequently, trying and finding success at using robots to load and unload trailer trucks.
As Wynright’s chairman, Michael Scheck, puts it: “At the end of the day, we’re engineers.” Indeed, his company has over 200 in-house engineers, who, as its marketing literature touts, design, manufacture, integrate and install the full spectrum of “intralogistic” solutions (the “intra” referring to their specialty of working within the four walls of a warehouse or distribution center).
As automation engineers, they know well that they must be forward looking and thinking, if not on behalf of their customers, then on behalf of themselves: technology quickly passes anyone by who doesn’t keep up. The impact of robotics on logistics, especially materials handling, is just such a case.
When it comes to robotics, Wynright doesn’t dabble; it rightly saw where robotics was headed and built Wynright Robotics, a research and development facility in Arlington, Texas, which just happens to be within shouting distance of the University of Texas Arlington’s Research Institute, with its world-class Advanced Manufacturing Research and Development Center in robotics. That’s not only smart thinking—it’s visionary engineering.
The visionary part has turned into real robotics products that can be of immediate service to Wynright’s customers, especially at addressing the thorny automation issues at loading docks. To that end, Wynright produced its Robot Truck Loader or RTL (2011) and more recently its Robot Truck Unloader or RTU.
The new Wynright Robot Truck Unloader or RTU is the newest member of the loading dock crew. Robotics Tomorrow reports the “Wynright RTU is ideal for boxes, bales, containers, tires and a variety of other products. One of the first of its kind for materials handling, it is a self-guided, autonomous robot that can be used to unload a wide range of floor-loaded products on semi-truck trailers or ocean freight containers.
“The Wynright RTU’s advanced perception technology allows it to navigate into the trailer or container and sense its surroundings, as well as the size and shape of cases or even irregular products. It then unloads them onto a telescoping 24V motor driven roller conveyor to transfer product back into the warehouse or distribution center.”
“We have used different robot suppliers, but Motoman was willing to allow us to integrate their software with Rockwell’s, which we feel is a tremendous benefit,” explains Tim Criswell, divisional president of Wynright Robotics. “This enables us to use Rockwell’s ControlLogix PLC for the entire operation, rather than needing a separate dedicated controller for the robot.”
The RTU is mounted on a three-wheeled triangular base with two wheels in the front, which are driven by Allen-Bradley servos to control direction and speed.
In addition to brawn and never tiring out, the Wynright RTU has additional skills well suited to life on a loading dock.
The machine can automatically scan barcodes as it removes cases from an 18-wheeler; it can track the weights and sizes of cases; it has a bypass process to handle odd-sized cases; and a paging system to alert operators when errors occur.