How robots help conveyors in a modern material handling system

Successful integration of robots in conveyance demands a meticulous understanding of manual processes, ensuring ROI and efficient, safe material handling.

By Chris Vavra March 12, 2024
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Material handling insights

  • Modern conveyors, integrated with 2D motion control, revolutionize material handling, offering efficiency and adaptability to diverse packages.
  • Robots, including arms, AGVs, AS/RS and AMRs, are pivotal in conveying strategies, optimizing throughput by ensuring consistent object presentation.

Traditional conveyor networks have transported objects one at a time in a single, linear direction, but they are getting more sophisticated and advanced in their movements now that they’ve been embedded with 2D motion control capabiltiies. This offers many potential benefits for robot applications, said Emmet Stiff, new business development manager – ModSort at Regal Rexnord in his presentation “Conveying Strategies for Robotic Applications:​ How to Maximize Throughput” at Modex in Atlanta.

2D conveyors, along with robotics arms and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), are orchestrated by a warehouse execution system (WES), which enables an automated material handling system that can go “lights out.”

This is beneficial because the modern material handling and transportation network require efficiency and the ability to handle different types of packages without enduring slowdown or downtime. This has become more acute in recent years because customers have unique requirements, which necessitate specific package types and conveyor network design. Conveyance as a word has been around since the late 14th Century, Stiff said, and its potential, thanks to robotic applications, are greater than ever.

Conveyors, Stiff said, are the backbone of a modern material handling system and the direction and environment in which an object travels determines the type of technology used. There are many technology considerations with conveyors including the type of drive system, frame material and the conveyance medium. Robots play a key role in this process.

Emmet Stiff, new business development manager – ModSort at Regal Rexnord in his presentation “Conveying Strategies for Robotic Applications: How to Maximize Throughput” at Modex in Atlanta.

Emmet Stiff, new business development manager – ModSort at Regal Rexnord in his presentation “Conveying Strategies for Robotic Applications: How to Maximize Throughput” at Modex in Atlanta. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Four types of robotic applications in a conveyor network

A conveyor network has many different moving parts and robots play a key role.

Four robot types are commonly used to transport and move items: Robotic arms with a specific type of end-effector, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

Four robot types are commonly used to transport and move items: Robotic arms with a specific type of end-effector, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Regardless of the type of robot used, the presentation of the handled object is critical to maximizing throughput. Stiff said objects must be presented clearly and consistently. The environment should be well-lit and have the same precise orientation. This allows the robotic application to achieve consistent success.

The strategy execution cycle should be about understanding, translating, implementing, measuring and adapting to the situation and working to ensure it can achieve repeatable success and avoid downtime.

Stiff described several situations where robots can be beneficial in a conveyance strategy.

  1. Pick-and-place and induction. The robot replaces repetitive human tasks by picking and placing products into totes, crates or onto moving conveyors.

  2. Container unloading. Robots load or unload full shipping containers of floor-loaded products. This can be a safety issue if humans do it as well as a low-value manual process. Robots don’t get wear and tear the way humans do and can perform the task consistently.

  3. Palletizing and depalletizing. Robots can stack or unstack a single case or a mixed case of pallets. Like container loading and unloading, this is a manual process that can improve worker safety and health by making it a largely automated process.

  4. AS/RS. This allows staging inbound products for optimized picking order utilizing a compact footprint for better storage capabilities.

  5. AMRs. The AMR brings products to operators rather than having a human be part of the loading process and handles products for safety risk items.

Bringing robots into the conveyance process

Stiff said modern automated projects benefit from a structured approach and robots can help by taking over existing manual processes that are well-documented and established. However, it only works if the conveyor and robotic equipment are carefully chosen.

“You really have to understand the manual process,” Stiff said. “All the steps and be very cognizant of that manual process. Only then are you in a position to implement an autonomous solution. You have to make sure you’ve improved by generating ROI.”


Author Bio: Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.