April 13, 2016      

Many factories and warehouses still rely on human workers to pick and move items, but as industrial automation spreads, the need for clear human-machine interfaces with robots increases. Seegrid Corp., which makes vision-based navigation systems to automate material handling, is adding the Subway Platform displays to its Seegrid Supervisor tool for remotely managing vision-guided vehicles (VGVs). Like many mass-transit systems, Subway Platform displays the estimated time of arrival (ETA). It can also collect data to help make management of VGV fleets safer and more efficient, said the company.

Customer input essential

Pittsburgh-based Seegrid developed Subway Platform with input from customer Whirlpool Corp., which uses 54 vision-guided pallet trucks and tow tractors in its factory for washing machines in Clyde, Ohio.

“We have ongoing discussions with Whirlpool, our biggest installed base,” said Jeff Christensen, vice president of products and services at Seegrid. “The material handling team knows where all the trucks are, but they relayed to us that operators on the floor are pulling items off carts to make 22,000 washing machines every day.”

In a hybrid environment, people and logistics automation need to coordinate on a busy shop floor.

“There are still a lot of manual trucks and hundreds of pedestrians in a congested environment,” Christensen said. “With a soup-to-nuts, fully automated operation, traffic flow could be more centrally controlled, but in this case, we need to manage traffic flow and expectations.”

“They needed a specific and contextual insight into what was happening, whether a cart would be on time,” he added. “The people who pull washing machine parts from a conveyor belt needed to radio someone; they couldn’t just assume that the [VGV] would be there.”

“Unlike with a human driver, you can’t just radio the trucks to ask where they are,” Christensen told Robotics Business Review. “Since we have the data stream from all 50-plus trucks at their plant, it’s very location-specific, and we can present the information on a small screen that can sit right at the workstation.”

But too much information can also hurt productivity. “We tell them precisely three things only — which truck it’s going to be, what the ETA is, and whether the ETA is within expected norms — that’s all they need to know,” he said.

“Subway Platform allows me to track our automated operations at a glance, wherever I am, without having to run a report,” said Brad St. Louis, senior engineer of the materials department at Whirlpool. “It displays VGV status, so assembly operators know when their materials will arrive.”

Safety first for AGVs

“We’re very proud of how safe our vehicles are,” said Christensen. “We’ve never had a personnel-related accident over hundreds of thousands of miles. Compare that with manually driven trucks and forklifts, where there’s a fatality every three days.”

“Adding safety to the movement of heavy materials is of paramount importance,” he said. “We can provide redundant safety with visual and audible indicators on vehicles, plus contextual awareness.”

Unlike other autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs), which use lidar, tape, or magnetic markers to sense their environments, Seegrid uses five pairs of cameras to create a 3D grid. Its proprietary software then assesses objects in that space, and VGVs can improve their awareness of an area after multiple trips.

“Our navigation system is probabilistic, which is more robust for environmental change,” Christensen said. “When we train a vehicle on a route, it takes all 10 images, forms a giant point cloud from ceiling to floor in 360 degrees, and uses all that data to define this point in space. The VGV is not looking at individual points but statistically to have confidence.”

“We’re not doing it deterministically, like with tape,” he said. “We’re looking at it from the entire perspective across the entire dome. No one area is weighted over another, so it can handle overhead obstacles or a lot of product movement. If, say, shelving is full one day and empty the next, a deterministic system wouldn’t know where it was.”

Does this have implications for self-driving cars, many of which are using lidar in development?

“We’re very focused on material handling, logistics automation,” Christensen said. “But from a technology perspective, there is broader applicability.” Subway Platform can also reduce pedestrian movement in the busy factory, Christensen said. “Instead of looking out into an aisle or walking around wondering when materials will show up, someone can look at a screen,” he said. “Anytime you can reduce unnecessary traffic, it makes the whole place safer.”

Encouraging logistics automation adoption

“Part of the challenge of managing autonomous vehicles is that not only does the technology need to work well, but human adoption is also significant — especially in transitional forms that are partially manual,” Christensen said.

“Most customers don’t want to go from 0 to 100 percent automation; they don’t want that expense or risk,” he explained. “We encourage our customers to embrace the hybrid environment and automation in a very low-risk sort of way.”

Seegrid’s partners include UniCarriers Corp., formerly part of Nissan Motor Corp., and The Raymond Corp., an affiliate of Toyota Motor Corp.

“They build the truck chassis, and we do part of the hardware components for trucks to be automated,” Christensen said. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We do all assembly in house.”

“Seegrid Supervisor is Web-based but runs on premises, primarily because factories and warehouses aren’t typically high-bandwidth settings,” Christensen noted. “We put a Web server in their building, and Supervisor gathers a stream of real-time data from trucks that’s rebroadcast in the form of maps on a browser-based page.”

AGV communications to improve

Researchers at the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain have developed a new 5G radio system for communications among vehicles that they say will improve safety when 5G and autonomous vehicles are more available. The METIS II project is supported by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 fund.

“With Subway Platform, we now have trust and visibility into real-time operations, managing intersections of the fleet and interacting with other systems,” he said.

That collected data stream could soon be part of the emerging industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

“That’s the direction we’re going — we’re building analytics through the year,” Christensen acknowledged. “We’re adding insights … to provide actionable intelligence about customers’ operations from data that’s already being collected.”

Robotics use case and value added

“We first had a discussion around the use case last spring — Whirlpool brought it up,” Christensen recalled. “We designed the Subway Platform feature as a natural extension.”

Naturally, Whirlpool was the first to get Subway Platform, with installation several weeks ago, but Seegrid’s other customers will benefit. They include Volvo, the United States Postal Service, Honeywell, and 3M.

“We are testing it with other customers and will include it as a feature to Supervisor, pushed out to existing customers at no additional cost,” Christensen said. “We’re adding value to the overall system.”

In addition, automation can actually help with employment. “There’s a knee-jerk reaction to say that robots take jobs, but if you look closer, that’s simply not true,” Christensen said. “For example, Whirlpool was able to bring back a manufacturing line that was previously sent to Mexico back to Ohio.”

Experience a guide to the AGV market

The North American market for automated material handling will grow from $4.8 billion in 2014 to $7.1 billion in 2019, projects BCC Research LLC. The space is large enough for lots of players, Christensen said.

“There are several companies that have been in the market for some time,” he said. “Traditional AGVs — tape-, lidar-, or magnet-guided — those tend to be all-or-nothing systems. Customers have to buy into the whole system, and they lack flexibility in the infrastructure after the sale.”

“This can hinder the customer from innovating,” Christensen continued. “From our perspective, it’s all about how the vehicle can adapt in an existing environment. The customers can change it on their own.”

“Other companies are taking the same angle to what we’ve been doing for over a dozen years,” he said. “This validates our approach. At MODEX, we saw other vehicles that claimed to be robust, but precious few units are out. They’re still at the prototype stage and have a few hard lessons ahead.”

“Having a quarter-million miles of autonomous travel in the real world gives us a lead over a nice trade-show booth,” Christensen said. “There’s definitely increasing interest and a greater awareness of the level of robotics technology.”

The number of VGVs worldwide has grown by 30 percent, thanks to Seegrid’s 2016 orders to date. The company also said it plans to expand existing installments in the U.S. automotive industry and in Europe.

In addition, Seegrid’s workforce has more than doubled since 2014 to close to 100 employees.

“We have close ties to Carnegie Mellon University,” Christensen said. “Pittsburgh is a good place to find robotics talent. We’re also gearing up on the sales side and application engineering.”

Customers need to understand the transition to automation and associated economics, he said.

“We’re a software and technology company, not necessarily a vehicle company,” Christensen said. “We’re really in 3D vision; we just happen to apply it to materials handling.”