December 13, 2017      

2018 will be a big year for mobile picking robots. Just ask RBR50 company Vecna Robotics, whose Tote Retrieval System won the DHL and Dell Robotics Mobile Picking Challenge last week in Troisdorf, Germany.

DHL, the world’s leading logistics company, turned to robotics companies for help meeting the increasing volume of material in its warehouses and distribution centers. For the challenge, the three finalists (from Singapore, Switzerland, and the U.S.) built robots that could navigate traditional warehouse shelves and pick boxes and totes.

“When it comes to mobile picking robots, one size doesn’t fit all, varying customer profiles can drive a particular approach,” said Adrian Kumar, VP of Solutions Design at DHL Supply Chain. “That’s why we continue to research different techniques to get a head of this emerging technology”

And Vecna’s Tote Retrieval System (TRS) completed each pick successfully, taking home the grand prize of 15,000 euros ($17,700 U.S) and the chance to build a proof of concept with DHL. Watch the video below to see Vecna’s TRS in action during the challenge.

Meet Vecna’s Tote Retrieval System

The TRS can be used in person-to-goods, goods-to-person, and goods-to-robot order-fulfillment activities, case retrieval for order fulfillment, line-side replenishment, or for numerous other activities. Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Vecna Robotics, told Robotics Business Review that the TRS, which can lift boxes up to 55 lb., uses an XYZ elevator approach for picking. The other finalists used traditional robot arms. Theobald said this approach allows the TRS to both pick items off high shelves and operate effectively in narrow aisles.

“The TRS doesn’t have an arm that needs space for its elbow or certain orientations,” Theobald said. “Our robot can pick from three sides, with the fourth side for storage. But if you removed the storage, it could pick all the way around up to 16 feet.”

On the standard version of the TRS, boxes will require barcodes to help the robot understand which boxes to pick up. Theobald said there will be an optional 3D vision system available for the TRS to pick unlabeled boxes.

As you’ll also see towards the end of the video, Vecna showed how the TRS can also pick and place items. Theobald demoed the TRS picking a box off of a Vecna RC20 Conveyer mobile robot and lifting it up and placing it on the appropriate shelf.

This was not a requirement of DHL’s challenge, Theobald said, but the team wanted to go the extra mile with some “challenge picks” at the end of its demo. He said it shows how different types of robots can work together in a warehouse and how the TRS can pick and place from other robots or conveyor belts, for example.

Tote Retrieval System completes end-to-end offering

“There’s real demand for mobile piece picking,” said Theobald, who noted that Vecna has been working on a TRS-like system for years. “This is the last missing piece for our strategy. [We want to] provide our customers with an end-to-end solution that doesn’t require them to hack something together from multiple vendors, which it is were the industry is right now because there are no interoperability standards.”

Theobald said Vecna plans to start shipping the TRS in mid-2018. And he said Vecna already has customers “close to signing orders” in the retail, shipping, and medical fields. The TRS can either be purchased or leased through a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) model.

“The reality for most organizations is they need to get something up and running quickly, but it needs to have flexibility and robustness and to be able to work with humans,” Theobald said. “We’re giving customers the option to adopt AS/RS-like capabilities without the need for a major infrastructure investment.”

Vecna Tote Retrieval System

Daniel Theobald, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Vecna Robotics, demonstrating the Tote Retrieval System to more than 180+ senior supply chain professionals at the DHL Innovation Day. (Credit: Vecna Robotics)