It’s 8 am a the logistics hub at Bechtle Platz 1 and Cloudio has just picked up his first parcels of the day. Packed neatly into a portable, multi-level shelving unit, the valuable consignment is manoeuvred some 120 metres from goods in to its destination—a job Cloudio completes around a dozen times a day. The new warehouse assistant has been in the job since last autumn and has quickly become a reliable member of the team despite measuring in at only 90 cm long, 60 cm wide and just shy of 50 cm tall. Cloudio is a collaborative robot, or cobot, that helps out the warehouse team completely autonomously. He’s the first of his kind and the next step towards flexible and smart automation within Bechtle logistics—a fundamental component of the 2030 logistics strategy.
The number of packages leaving the Bechtle logistics hub every day now stands at some 22,000—a number that in 2020 was around 25 per cent bigger than the previous year. The huge demand for IT products to allow working from home and on the road kept the 120 staff in the warehouse extremely busy, not least because of the very strict precautions taken to protect against infection during the pandemic. And in the background, the first collaborative warehouse robot was quietly celebrating its début in regular operations. Of course, it wasn’t actually that quiet thanks to the fact that the cobot makes a distinctive beep to warn colleagues of its approach as part of a sophisticated safety concept.
The project team christened the little helper Cloudio in a nod to the technology that keeps him moving, but his given name is actually MiR100. Born in Denmark, the robot comes with a coherent hardware setup that includes the latest 360° sensors. Its “brain” is located in a Kubernetes cloud that doesn’t just send him a high-resolution map of the warehouse, but also his orders for the day.
Since October, the cobot has been transporting incoming goods—for which customer orders are already in the system—directly to goods out. The technical term is cross docking. Unnecessary warehousing becomes a thing of the past as goods continue to flow. The robot has been independently and diligently moving shelving units stocked with IT products through the warehouse—a task previously carried out manually by warehouse staff using a forklift truck or a ground conveyor. This is made possible by leveraging sophisticated lifting technology and plenty of power all at a leisurely 5 km/h. The aim is to deliver 100 per cent of parcels safely to goods out. Something it has managed perfectly up to now.
Cloudio has been designed for use in direct contact with people without barriers or predefined routes. “Cloudio’s sensors and the map of the warehouse help him figure out which objects are a fixed part of the warehousing infrastructure—e.g. shelving, steps and walls—and which are only temporary. People, pallets and fork lifts can be avoided by calculating new routes in advance, but if in doubt, he jams on the brakes”, explains Christian Deppisch, Innovation Manager, Bechtle Logistik & Service and head of the cobot project team.
In contrast to other autonomous guided vehicles, the Bechtle robot isn’t constrained to following magnetic strips laid out on the floor or barcodes—he is completely free which makes him ideal in a warehouse that isn’t designed for maximum automation. “The biggest advantage of our warehouse organisation is that it can be flexibly and efficiently adapted to new customer requirements and processes integrated into standard processes. This means the strengths of both man and machine can be perfectly balanced—demanding coordinative and varying activities on one hand and high process stability for routine tasks on the other”, says Klaus Kratz, member of the Bechtle logistics management board.
As is always the case when changes are being introduced, the entire warehouse staff were included from day one and informed of the project’s goals to relieve them of routine tasks so that they are in a better position to handle planned growth at the company and have more freedom to focus on complex tasks. It goes without saying that both the human staff and cobot grasped the opportunity to get to know each other during the test phase and this resulted in some important suggestions for improvement being made by the colleagues in operative logistics with the most visible being the laser pointer with which Cloudio alerts people to his approach. The new kid on the block certainly isn’t bashful but that’s how it should be.
The next step will see our robot storing goods in what we call the mixed zone. We’ve already tested the process and we should see it put into practice sometime this year”, says Christian Deppisch. By once again removing these mobile shelving racks and transporting them to the delivery area, the process chain will be complete. The roadmap is in place, profitability calculations made and the technology used on a solid foundation. “Introduced ten years ago and continuously updated and optimised, our SAP Extended Warehouse Management systems and our excellent relationship with SAP in Walldorf form the basis of our digital innovation and automation.
Klaus Kratz, member of the Bechtle logistics management board
“The next step will see our robot storing goods in what we call the mixed zone. We’ve already tested the process and we should see it put into practice sometime this year”, says Christian Deppisch. By once again removing these mobile shelving racks and transporting them to the delivery area, the process chain will be complete. The roadmap is in place, profitability calculations made and the technology used on a solid foundation. “Introduced ten years ago and continuously updated and optimised, our SAP Extended Warehouse Management systems and our excellent relationship with SAP in Walldorf form the basis of our digital innovation and automation”, says Klaus Kratz.
Against the backdrop of perfectly aligned mechanisms, new process optimisers such as smart gloves for scanning can be continuously introduced—with very noticeable benefits. The robot is just one way of supporting Bechtle’s 2030 logistics strategy, as in addition to more flexibility in intralogistics, the new concept also introduces a new warehousing system. The 640 rack spaces currently in the mixed zone will slowly be reduced to less than third thanks to the switch to the shelving rack carts moved around by the cobots. As a next step, a second cobot will soon be roaming around the warehouse in order to mitigate any risks with up to 50 trips being carried out every day in the medium-term by the robot helpers.
The highlight is that the SAP Warehouse Robotics solution, which was developed together with SAP especially for this innovation project, should make it easy to integrate devices from different vendors following the principle of Plug and Play. “Alongside comprehensive navigation thanks to sensors, swarm intelligence could also prove to be useful. One robot sends information to its robot friends about temporary obstacles and they are then able to optimise their own routes accordingly”, says Christian Deppisch. That doesn’t mean that the robots have free run of the entire, 25,000 m2 Bechtle warehouse. “Just like with a robot vacuum cleaner, our cobot has zones he can move about freely in, but also areas he should keep out of.”
Our partners at SAP had an unwavering focus on the project’s success and our colleagues, especially those from our in-house SAP IT team, provided excellent support.
Christian Deppisch, Innovation Manager, Bechtle Logistik & Service and head of the cobot project team.
Launched back in 2019, the robotics project was both conceptually and technically challenging. The core team made up of six Bechtle and SAP employees steadfastly planned, adapted, tested and developed the solution and carried out huge volumes of detailed work—from connectivity and data protection to the customised construction of the transportation racks. And this was all on top of their normal daily business and the unforeseen circumstances 2020 would bring. “Our partners at SAP had an unwavering focus on the project’s success and our colleagues, especially those from our in-house SAP IT team, provided excellent support”, summarises project lead Christian Deppisch. This meant that, despite the corona pandemic, Cloudio was successfully introduced into the warehouse in October.
Since taking up the job, the cobot’s record has been spotless with no collisions or damaged parcel reported. And if you’re wondering how he keeps up the energy to make the trips loaded with up to 150 kg, if he starts to feel a bit sluggish, he’ll take himself off to his docking station for a quick recharge during lunch and after work when goods in has closed its doors for the night. Even the most futuristic technology can sound like a regular working day.
Bechtle update editorial team
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This post was published on Apr 7, 2021.