Robots performing hard labor – research project for emptying sea containers

Emptying a sea container is real work. In one shift, a worker moves roughly 80 tons of cargo. And that at temperatures of up to 80 degrees Celsius. Yes, it can get that hot in the containers during summer! Obviously, it is difficult to find sufficient staff for this type of job, especially in times of labor shortage.

The problem is relevant. 70% of all sea freight is transported in containers. The amount of work involved in loading and unloading these containers is enormous. And while automated systems have found their way into most areas along the supply chain, containers are still, to a large extent, emptied manually. This is supposed to change with the help of a novel robot. For this purpose, the Bremen Institute for Production and Logistics at the University of Bremen (BIBA) is conducting research with the development partners BLG Handelslogistik, SCHULZ Systemtechnik Bremen and FRAMOS in the project “Interactive Robotics System for Emptying Sea Containers” (IRiS).

Flexibility and easy handling are the key

The IRiS experts are not the first to tackle this challenge. Industrial engineer Thies Beinke, IRiS project manager at BIBA, explains: “There are already systems in the market. However, these usually do not meet the requirements of port operators due to high investment and commissioning costs.”

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Therefore, IRiS pursues other avenues. The goal, according to the project plan, is the development of a mobile robot to improve the efficiency of container handling in ports. The robot is supposed to operate quickly without having to undergo major adjustments to the existing operational infrastructure. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) is funding the three-year project under the Innovative Port Technologies (IHATEC) program with 2.2 million euros. The total amount is 3.16 million euros.

Special emphasis is placed on the design of the human-robot interaction interface. Because this determines whether the cooperation works. So-called interaction modules are supposed to enable an intuitive control of one or more robots from one control room. “So the employees can monitor the robots and intervene quickly and easily in case of malfunctions and, above all, without programming skills. Thus, the risk of a costly system downtime is minimized,” says Thies Beinke.

In the meantime, the mechatronic structure has largely been completed: The robot will be able to pull boxes out of the container, turn them and distribute them on the conveyor belt by using a system of suction grippers. State-of-the-art industrial image processing by the project partner FRAMOS ensures reliable classification of the packing scenarios and analysis of the container contents. Among other things, the system can detect whether a container can be unloaded fully automatically by robots or whether it requires a manual operation from the control room.

Figure: A model image of the robotics system (Image: BLG Logistic)

Figure: A model image of the robotics system (Image: BLG Logistic)

The principle 20/80

The development in the research project IRiS is based on a pragmatic and economically efficient automation design. Thies Beinke: “Theoretically, any operation of a robot during emptying can be automated. But that would not be effective, because such a system would be inflexible, error prone and ultimately not fast enough. In IRiS, the machine will do 80 percent of the work that can be standardized easily. The remaining 20 percent, which demand greater flexibility and cognitive abilities, will still be carried out by humans. “

Precisely this pragmatic approach makes the project very promising for logistical practice. If up to 80 percent of the standard situations are processed by the robotics system, the required through-put times can be sustainably secured and costs can be reduced. There are enough high-value jobs for the existing workers.

Claus Freydag, Executive Vice President of Ocean Freight DB Schenker, also emphasizes the cost aspect: “The pressure on logistics costs of loaders and importers remains high and they are very likely to increase over the next few years if economic activity slows down. Since the staff is still the largest cost block, every manual handling is an important matter of expense. IRiS should bring an attractive solution to the market at the right time.

“In order to save time when emptying #sea containers, robots must be flexible and easy to use. Precisely this is the goal of the research project #IRiS.“

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So far, the project is very promising and runs according to plan. A prototype will work at BIBA under laboratory conditions later this year. Next year, the transfer to the real industrial environment will take place.

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