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Robot uprising: Swisslog on automation and robotisation in logistics

PMV sits down with Swisslog’s Alain Khaddoum to discuss the advance of automation in logistics

AutoStore is a robotised solution by Swisslog that sees a fleet of eight-wheeled, box-picking robots traverse both X and Y axes atop of a two-dimensional grid over the storage area.
AutoStore is a robotised solution by Swisslog that sees a fleet of eight-wheeled, box-picking robots traverse both X and Y axes atop of a two-dimensional grid over the storage area.

The UAE has made logistics a key focus of its efforts to diversify its economy, and for the most part has met with considerable success. However, the segment is constantly evolving, and in its latest iteration, the industry is seeing a shift towards the automation, robotisation and digital integration of storage solutions.

One company in position to capitalise on these global logistics trends is Swisslog, a Switzerland-based company that specialises in such integrated automation solutions for warehouses and distribution centres.

In the region too, the company has a growing portfolio of projects under its belt, including a contract signed with UAE water-bottling company Mai Dubai in December for the delivery of an automated solution for a $21m warehouse expansion project by 2020.

Read more: Swisslog begins $21m automated warehouse project in Dubai

The project is a perfect example of the ambitious scale and scope of upcoming logistics automation projects in the region.

At the recent Materials Handling Middle East 2017 trade show, Swisslog was showcasing its AutoPiQ solution, which combines a robotic stock picker with an automated storage system.

Alain Khaddoum, the recently appointed general manager for Swisslog Middle East explains: “AutoPiQ is a solution that we have where we integrate the ItemPiQ robot with either a shuttle system or an AutoStore system, which is a solution for cartons or single items.”

The ItemPiQ robot is a joint project between German robotics developer KUKA Robotics and Swisslog that uses the former’s hardware and software support, but which is led by Swisslog’s engineering teams in terms of the design of the picking head, which can use a combination of fingers and suction cups.

The live demonstration shows the impressive dexterity of the ItemPiQ’s robotic picking head, which is able to grasp objects as diverse and irregular as soft packets of tissues and tubes of toothpaste. Khaddoum comments: “This is how Swisslog is pushing the automation level further to have a really fully automated solution at the end of the day — from the storage to the picking.”

Swisslog first presented a version of the The AutoPiQ concept in the Middle East region two years ago, at Materials Handling Middle East 2015, but since then has considerably refined the function of the gripper arm.

At this stage, AutoPiQ is a relatively novel solution, even from a global logistics perspective, but the first system has already been sold in the USA. In a sign of the changing times, Khaddoum is also optimistic about the potential of the materials: “We get the feeling from Materials Handling Middle East that many clients are interested in using the AutoPiQ solution for future applications.”

AutoStore is another or Swisslog’s robotised and segment-leading systems named that sees a fleet of eight-wheeled, box-picking robots traverse both X and Y axes atop of a two-dimensional grid over the storage area.

Khaddoum explains: “AutoStore is one of the most compact storage solutions on the market, because the bins are stacked on top of and next to each other — so you don’t have any air between the storage locations.

“The robots are then moving on top of this grid on a rail in the X and Y direction and handling the bins. Each has a gripper lift that can go down and pick up or deposit the bins.”

Moving forward, Khaddoum is optimistic about the potential for growth in automated logistics solutions in the region, having himself been witness to enormous change within the two short years since he initially joined Swisslog Middle East as the first hire by then general manager Frédéric Zielinski.

He explains: “Over the past years we are seeing more and more interest from the clients in fully automated intralogistics solutions. They are now more aware about the benefits of automation, and they are also more familiar with us, since we have more references in the Middle East. This is making the clients more confident in investing in automated solutions.”

Another major project secured and currently being executed the company in the region is a large-scale, high bay warehousing solution — like the Mai Dubai project — but for the major Saudi bottled drinks producer Almarai. It awarded Swisslog the $50m contract for the project back in November 2015 to be delivered in two phases over a three-year project time-line that will also see it completed in 2018.

With such projects under its belt and such large players in tow, it seems likely that Khaddoum is correct to be optimistic.

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