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.

Visionary engineering

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.

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.

Frito-Lay: loading dock transformation

Frito-Lay, the snack food giant, reports DCVelocity, had by the mid-1990s automated all inside operations of its distribution centers–except for its loading docks. When it came to loading trucks, the company still relied on manual processes, with workers spending their days inside trailers hand stacking cases of chips, nuts, cookies, crackers, and meats.

Although there were mechanical loading systems on the market, there was nothing available at the time that could match hand loading when it came to ensuring that every inch of the trailer cube was utilized.

However, this traditional labor-intensive process became less and less appealing as volume ramped up–the company ships out 700 million cases each year, says Andy Fisher, senior director of warehouse operations for Frito-Lay North America. That’s more than one case for every man, woman and child in the U.S.

In 1995, Frito-Lay approached long-time automation partner Wynright about automating this last, reluctant process. Fisher says that Wynright was a natural place to turn for help. The two had worked together on a number of DC [distribution center] racking and conveyor projects since 1982, and over the years, the provider had offered many useful suggestions for improving Frito-Lay’s operations.

“They really knew our business and understood our wants and needs,” he says. The engineering result was a semi-automated (but non-robotic) solution that enabled Frito-Lay to load trucks twice as fast as it could via the manual process. The solution also offered ergonomic advantages, since workers no longer had to bend, reach, and stretch to position the boxes.

Then came the robotic killer apps: the RTL and RTU

Ten years later, Wynright approached its long-time customer Frito-Lay with a new idea for an upgrade. Wynright’s idea was to take the worker out of the process, and instead use a mobile robot that would move into the trailer, build the load, and then back out again.

After seeing a computer simulation, Frito-Lay gave Wynright the go-ahead. The result was the Robotic Truck Loader (RTL), which builds half a stack outside the trailer then drives it into the trailer and gently sets it on the floor.

Each stack is built to half the trailer’s height. After positioning the first stack, the robot places the second stack on top of it, and then works its way across the trailer. Once the robot reaches the other end, it moves back one case length and it repeats the process, repeating the process until the truck cube is filled to the max.

The biggest challenge in turning the concept into reality was figuring out how to tell the robot where it was inside the trailer. “You can put a robot on a cart and drive it into the trailer, but it’s never going to be in exactly the same position,” recalls Criswell.

Wynright solved that by deploying advanced sensor technology. “We used a laser measurement system that would scan the environment and create a cloud of data points on the location of the trailer’s floor and walls, and the existing cases,” Criswell explains. “The system then analyzes the data, feeds that information to the robot, and off you go!”

Fisher reports that the RTLs have brought about significant productivity gains at the sites where they’ve been implemented, boosting case loading rates from 500 cases per labor-hour to over 1,100.

The gains in this case are due to efficiency, not speed. An RTL can’t load a truck any faster than a human can, but because a single operator can control three robots at once, it allows workers to be more productive, says Fisher.

Frito-Lay claims that it was this ability for one person to operate multiple units that justified the cost of the RTL automation.

With its recent announcement of the “Unloader” or RTU complementing the “Loader”, Wynright has now completed the loading/unloading cycle of materials or goods into or out of most any loading dock.

See for yourself below: Loader RTL and Unloader RTU