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From Vision to Reality: the Warehouse of Tomorrow

In recent years, industry and intralogistics have made huge leaps forward. Conventional factories are increasingly becoming smart factories; and in warehouses, driverless transport systems (DTS) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are just as commonplace as the robot vacuum cleaners going about their work in our living rooms at home. Experts from the KION Group reveal what other exciting developments the future of intralogistics holds.


The history of logistics goes back almost as far as that of humans. The need to transport materials from A to B with minimum effort has repeatedly given rise to new accomplishments that have allowed humanity as a whole to advance. The discovery of the wheel 5500 years ago, the incredible logistics involved in building the pyramids in Egypt, the first cranes used for the construction of ancient temples in Greece: All of these pioneering achievements were true milestones in an awe-inspiring story of progress that continues today, and is set to pave the way for an exciting future.

Indeed, intralogistics is currently in the midst of a number of new paradigm shifts as a result of digitalization and automation that will change the face of warehouses forever. Although we can still expect to see typical warehouse processes like goods receipt, testing, storage, picking, and dispatch in future, all of these processes will become quicker, more flexible, largely automated, and significantly more sustainable.

For many years, the various research departments at KION have been devoting their efforts to accelerating these developments, working in collaboration with renowned institutions such as the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML). Together with these experts, we take a look at the key trends that are already paving the way for the warehouse of tomorrow.

What will the warehouse of tomorrow look like? Significantly different than today: Fully automated and digitally controlled.

Artificial Intelligence: A Game-Changer in Intralogistics

“At the heart of the warehouse of tomorrow you will find a highly compressed, fully automated warehousing system that is modular, expandable, and linked to a swarm of robots. The entire system is networked and controlled by artificial intelligence.” This is how Joachim Tödter, Senior Director of Technology & Innovation at the KION Group, describes his vision of the warehouse of the future. When it comes to making this vision a reality, a key role will be played by the research project “LoadRunner”. In 2021, KION and the Fraunhofer IML presented their “smart vehicle swarm”, which they are now trying to commercialize. Each of the agile little robots can transport packages weighing 30 kg at a speed of 40 km/h. However, the system not only excels in terms of speed, but also in terms of intelligence: The vehicles are able to communicate with each other without a superordinate entity. They mutually support each other, share the task of carrying bulky loads, and coordinate amongst themselves as to which vehicle will take which package and which one of them can provide the most efficient route for which order. “This is the first real 'swarm', and the first real example of the use of AI in intralogistics,” explains Professor Michael ten Hompel, Managing Director of the Fraunhofer IML. The solution combines networks with real-time capability, high speed camera systems, artificial intelligence, and new computing technologies. According to ten Hompel, the LoadRunner is set to “revolutionize the sector”.

This is the first real 'swarm', and the first real example of the use of AI in intralogistics. The LoadRunner is set to revolutionize the sector.

Professor Michael ten Hompel, Managing Director of the Fraunhofer IML

Abassin Aryobsei, Vice President for Product Strategy & New Technologies at KION Group AG, also sees a great deal of potential for artificial intelligence in intralogistics, primarily in vehicles, but also in terms of overarching control: “AI will allow us to continuously optimize systems. The systems will be able to learn, and they will continuously share the intelligence they have acquired with other systems. We can really expect a lot from the future,” he predicts.

Dynamic Swarms Instead of Rigid Systems

In the long term, smaller transport systems like the LoadRunner, or AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) like the C-MATIC from KION daughter company Linde Material Handling will replace fixed material handling systems. The latter are still a common sight in many warehouses and distribution centers. Implementing these systems requires long-term planning: Once they have been built, the layout is relatively set in stone. The future will look quite different with the introduction of transport robots, as they can be deployed anywhere and routes can be flexibly adjusted at any time. As a result, they will offer a new, unfathomable degree of freedom when it comes to designing warehouses in future.

Another benefit of the LoadRunner swarms and AMRs is that when one device fails, another transport robot will simply take over the job it was doing. Unlike in the case of automated conveyors, one technical problem no longer causes the entire system to come to a standstill. The flexibility and almost limitless scalability of these new systems will allow warehouses of the future to achieve a greater degree of reliability as well as optimal, needs-oriented capacity utilization thanks to smart coordination of all processes.

What does a LoadRunner look like? The small Swarm robot is quite fast and strong and can transport packages weighing 30 kg at a speed of 40 km/h.

High Speed and Failsafe Data Networks

In the warehouse of tomorrow, communication between machines will be the decisive factor. As a result, future transporters will be designed as broadly as possible for optimal connectivity, including the necessary hardware and software. However, this vision of autonomous, smart transporters can only be achieved with the help of powerful mobile networks that can transmit large quantities of data securely, swiftly, and efficiently. This is where the 5G cellular standard comes in, the use of which has already been tested in intralogistics by KION daughter company STILL at its headquarters in Hamburg, where it has built its own closed campus network. “On the one hand, this 5G network will help to raise autonomous logistics processes to the next level for our customers. On the other, we will be able to optimize our production process thanks to the super-fast data transmission technology. In future, smart factories may involve wireless production robots working seamlessly alongside humans using rapid, wireless communication systems,” explains Ansgar Bergmann, STILL specialist for data and networking. These are the main reasons why the company has installed its own internal 5G network.

Thanks to the 5G standard, it will be possible in future for entire AGV fleets to be coordinated in real time, with control and route data stored in the company's cloud. Thus, in the warehouse of tomorrow, 5G will not only ensure that systems are failsafe, but will also bring about a data transfer boost that will allow the most cutting-edge visions of machine learning to be realized.

The digital networking of vehicles and equipment in warehouses made visible.

Real-Time Warehouse Visualization and Inventory

Allowing driverless transport systems (DTS) to become smarter than ever before is the objective of the ARIBIC research project. Today, driverless transport systems are already deployed in great numbers in intralogistics and production facilities. Equipped with modern sensor technology such as laser scanners and cameras, they are able to confidently navigate racks, production lines, and warehouses. During operation, they continuously generate vast quantities of data relating to their surroundings. However, it is this data that is not yet being collected systematically at present.

Project Manager for Robotics & AI at the KION Group Bengt Abel and his team want to change that. “We have thought about how to store this data so that it is only usable by our customers. The idea behind ARIBIC is to allow the sensor data that is recorded, pre-processed, and analyzed by a DTS to be stored in a database rather than discarded,” explains Abel. The data collected by the sensors on the trucks is used to create high-resolution 3D maps of warehouses or production environments, referred to as a “digital twin”. “Many companies in the industrial sector still rely on the post-digitalization of their production processes and warehouses, which means they are only really scratching the surface. With ARIBIC, we aim to go one step further, as it will allow continuous analysis of data,” adds Dr. Joachim Tödter.

ARIBIC - The acronym stands for "Artificial Intelligence-Based Indoor Cartography": continuous data evaluation shall make it possible to create a real-time digital twin of a warehouse or a production environment.

As the maps are created in real time, they contain a huge amount of up-to-date information that in turn can be exploited for completely new applications. For example, these maps will recognize when a pallet has been placed in front of an emergency exit or when a route is blocked, and will trigger a corresponding alarm. However, they will also enable improvements in order picking. For example, if a DTS detects while driving past that an employee is currently removing the penultimate package from a pallet, it can immediately notify another DTS so that it can come and replenish supplies. In this way, in the warehouse of tomorrow it will also be possible to simply have stock-taking performed during working hours and without any additional expenditure of resources, as the DTS will be able to carry out this task whilst doing its rounds of the warehouse and continuing its normal transport activities.

Increased System Intelligence for a Reduced CO2 Footprint

It goes without saying that sustainability will be of great importance in the warehouse of tomorrow, from photovoltaic panels on the roof to smart charging management for truck fleets powered by lithium-ion batteries. The core of the warehouse will be formed by a highly compressed, closed-loop, lights-out warehouse that not only takes up less space, but also consumes less energy thanks to the shuttle systems whizzing to-and-fro between the racks, which can perform their work in total darkness. When they are not in use, they go into sleep mode in order to reduce their energy consumption to an absolute minimum. Moreover, all shuttles will be perfectly orchestrated so that they do not all start up at once, avoiding cost-intensive peaks in energy supply.

Data flows are energy-intensive, which is why KION is researching how the warehouse can be operated in the most energy-efficient way possible.

All of the vehicles in circulation, from goods receipt to dispatch, will be instructed by AI-supported software to go to a charging point at just the right time, namely when a lot of energy is available from the photovoltaic panels or at a time when this will not result in an interruption of ongoing processes or in simultaneous charging of too many vehicles. “In the warehouse of tomorrow, the superordinate system will manage the trucks in order to optimize energy consumption, be that the LoadRunner or other trucks transporting the goods,” explains Tödter.

Last year, KION invested in ifesca GmbH, a company whose platform also relies on artificial intelligence. Based on precise forecasts, customers can plan optimal charging sequences for their forklifts and the rest of their warehouse technology. This reduces energy costs and results in more balanced loading of the electricity grid.

As a result, they can optimize energy consumption in their warehouses with a view to achieving CO2-neutral intralogistics.

The development teams at the KION Group and its subsidiaries are pulling out all the stops in order to make these visions a reality. Many key milestones on the path to the warehouse of tomorrow have already been reached. There’s no question about it: Digitalization, automation, and all related innovations will permanently change the face of (intra)logistics, and the KION Group is doing its utmost to become a trailblazer in all these areas.