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Intralogistics as a testing ground for innovation

The intralogistics industry recently gathered at the VDI’s German Material Flow Forum to introduce new initiatives, exchange ideas and build networks. The KION Group was also in attendance, outlining its vision for the future of intralogistics.


“Intralogistics is a testing ground for innovative technology,” said Professor Johannes Fottner, Chair of Material Handling, Material Flow, and Logistics at the Technical University of Munich. The university is the long-standing host of the German Material Flow Forum organized by the Association of German Engineers (VDI), an event where scientists, manufacturers and customers meet to discuss the latest trends. And warehousing currently finds itself with many interesting trends: From artificial intelligence to machine learning and automation, almost any topic discussed in industrial circles or societal ones can be categorized as either ‘the future’ or ‘all hype’ and features prominently in the world of intralogistics.

This was apparent at the March forum, where scientists and engineers presented the latest research findings, intralogistics manufacturers promoted their new ideas and customers described the type of solutions they are looking for. Sometimes, all at same time, as was the case with QBIIK, an initiative where KION is also participating. QBIIK is a research partnership among universities and companies that aims to incorporate robotics into a picking platform. The autonomous iGo Neo truck from STILL provides the platform for a robotic arm. “This type of mobile robot on a mobile platform is the first of its kind,” said Jonathan Dziedzitz from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology at the project’s presentation.

The trend for the future must be to start from a stable, if not yet optimized, position.

Professor Johannes Fottner

Innovative products alone are not enough

In recent years, many long-established intralogistics engineering companies have had to learn how to work with software, which was a recurring theme at the event. Manufacturers are asking themselves what skills they need. Is it enough to be working on automation technology, or do they need to be looking further ahead to areas such as sensor systems, augmented reality and energy storage?

One aspect was very clear from many of the presentations: Innovative products alone are not enough. “They also have to fit in with the customers’ plans and process chains,” said Professor Fottner. Which explains why the way the industry is handling innovation and managing customer expectations was also discussed at the conference. How can intralogistics user demands for cutting-edge technology be realized in a rapidly advancing warehouse environment that leaves little room to test new ideas?

“The trend for the future must be to start from a stable, if not yet optimized, position,” Fottner believes.

And while many established manufacturers are working on models designed to encourage innovation, start-ups at the forum spoke of how they are trying to reduce the number of ideas so that their product development is faster and more reliable. What also became clear is that young innovators often find the transition from idea to actual product a challenge, which is why there is a growing number of partnerships between new and more established organizations.

Online retail is a testing ground for the future

Technology on its own is rarely the solution. “People often ask: ‘Can that be automated?’” said Günter Ullrich, head of Forum-FTS, an industry platform for automated guided vehicle systems, where Dematic is also a member. “The question should be: ‘What do you want your production logistics to look like in ten years?’” Only by asking the right questions about the future can companies start preparing today.

Online retail remains a testing ground for future technology because the combination of best-possible reaction times and often very diverse product ranges still presents a considerable challenge to automation. Dematic introduced its new ‘Automated Mixed Case Palletizing’ solution at the event. The system uses pouches to easily transport and sort products that are very different from one another. “It allows us to complement and standardize loading and unloading,” explained Lars Zeidlewicz, product manager at Dematic, adding that it has traditionally been a time-critical area of warehouse logistics.

What local authorities can learn from intralogistics

With its mix of innovation, vision and technological expertise, can intralogistics be a role model for other industries? A series of presentations at the forum was dedicated to the question of what local authorities and traffic planners can learn from warehousing. After all, many local governments are faced with surprisingly similar challenges: they need to organize the flow of people, manage traffic intelligently, and use space as effectively as possible.

“Our sector’s expertise can help local authorities manage their logistics,” said Markus Schmermund, Vice President Intralogistics Solutions at Linde Material Handling.

Trends in intralogistics such as connectivity, customization and automation can also be applied to urban environments: “It involves not only our product expertise, but also our process expertise, in particular,” noted Schmermund.

There is more to innovation than technological developments: pioneering ideas and a clear picture of processes and solutions are especially important. Intralogistics offers exactly that.