2021-09-07

LoadRunner: KION and Fraunhofer IML develop swarm robots for warehouses of the future

A pioneering spirit and a hunger for innovation are key to actively shaping the future of intralogistics. These characteristics are firmly entrenched in the KION Group, as has once again been shown by our partnership with the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML). Together we are pioneering an exciting project that goes by the name of “LoadRunner”. Our goal: to pave the way for a new generation of autonomous transport vehicles that will revolutionize intralogistics with artificial Intelligence (AI).

“LoadRunner”—even the name of the prototype developed by Frauenhofer IML sounds futuristic and dynamic. But the small transport vehicle is no lone wolf, it works as a swarm—and opens up a new chapter in warehouse logistics in a number of ways. The speed alone—up to ten meters a second—is revolutionary. But the vehicles are not just faster, they are also more intelligent than all autonomous transport vehicles to date in one critical point: they are able to use distributed AI to coordinate intelligently as a swarm. This makes them the ideal solution for sorting tasks, such as those at parcel centers. And besides perfect coordination, they can also collaborate: where necessary, several vehicles and up to four passive trailers can magnetically link to one another to transport large and bulky parts. And, so, swarm robotics has arrived in warehouses—with KION as the exclusive champion of the new technology.

Innovation for a Revolution in Intralogistics

Video of LoadRunners in Action

Complex development, phenomenal results

The high speeds and the autonomy of the swarm mean that the development of the LoadRunner to date has been highly complex. An interdisciplinary team of scientists from Fraunhofer IML developed a number of innovations—such as cameras that take up to 400 pictures per second to track the vehicles despite their high speeds. The LoadRunner developed by the Fraunhofer IML made its first appearance in a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) at the Digital-Gipfel 2019. In September 2020, a test operation in parcel sorting showed promising results: well over 10,000 shipments per hour could theoretically be sorted by just 60 vehicles, which is in the range of classic sorting systems.

KION Group and the Fraunhofer IML: a proven partnership

LoadRunner is not the first project in which the KION Group has refined a Fraunhofer IML prototype to create a marketable product: twenty years ago, exactly the same collaboration marked the start of the successful Dematic Multishuttle. From 2001, the KION subsidiary brand constantly worked to refine the Multishuttle and, in doing so, revolutionized warehouse logistics, particularly order picking. The Multishuttle marked the first milestone for automation and digitalization in intralogistics—which is now expected to be followed by the AI-controlled LoadRunner.

Artificial intelligence points the way into the future

The actual paradigm shift for this technology is that, for the very first time, artificial intelligence is being used for traffic management. The robots communicate with one another via 5G, independently coordinate their routes, and are also able to autonomously accept and deal with orders. This makes the LoadRunner the first technology to combine the capabilities of powerful sorting and materials handling technology with the potential of autonomous AI-based systems. What’s more, it requires less fixed infrastructure than conventional systems and enables much faster commissioning, dynamic performance adaptation, and greater scalability. Another benefit is the easy maintenance and repair: the failure of a conveyor belt in a normal distribution center can, in some cases, lead to the shutdown of the entire operation. But, if a LoadRunner fails, only a single robot has to be replaced, while the rest of the swarm continues its work unfazed. All in all, a whole range of benefits that can make the processes in warehouses even easier, faster, and more efficient—and which will now be made accessible to end customers thanks to the collaboration between the KION Group and Fraunhofer IML.

Working together from the prototype to the marketable product

To advance the industrialization of the LoadRunner, the “Enterprise Lab” at Fraunhofer IML in Dortmund commenced operations at the start of September. This will allow a dozen experts from the KION Group and Fraunhofer IML to work together to continue to refine the technology—from sensors through to the overarching platform. An extensive test environment has been installed in the Dortmund institute that will allow the pioneering prototype to advance to a fully developed product through comprehensive testing and application scenarios.

Fraunhofer IML

Founded in 1981, the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) is currently grappling with economically, ecologically, and socially relevant logistics issues. In Germany, the institute has made a name for itself as a leading authority in integrated logistics research. A major research project at Fraunhofer IML is the “Silicon Economy”, which is focused on distributed artificial intelligence. The aim of this project is for swarms of vehicles to organize themselves and connect with people, other swarms, and platforms.

Dreaming of more warehouse automation

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