How robots help conveyors in a modern material handling system

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.
Four robot types are commonly used with conveyors to move items: Robotic arms, AGVs, ASRS, and AMRs. | Source: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Traditional conveyor networks have transported objects one at a time in a single, linear direction, but they are getting more sophisticated in their movements now that they’ve been embedded with 2D motion-control capabilities. This offers many potential benefits for robot applications, said Emmet Stiff, new business development manager for ModSort at Regal Rexnord.

He delivered a presentation on “Conveying Strategies for Robotic Applications: How to Maximize Throughput” at MODEX 2024. Milwaukee-based Regal Rexnord manufactures motors and related components for mission-critical applications worldwide. They include indoor air-quality products used in hospitals, homes, and senior living facilities; industrial products to support food, beverage, and pharmaceutical production; and conveying equipment for warehouse functions.

2D conveyors, along with robotic arms and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), are orchestrated by a warehouse execution system (WES). These materials handling systems enable “lights-out” warehouse operations, Stiff said.

This is beneficial because modern logistics networks must efficiently handle different types of packages without enduring slowdowns or downtime, he said. Such challenges have become 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 noted, and its potential is greater than ever, thanks to robotic applications.

Conveyors are the backbone of a modern materials handling system, and the direction and environment in which an object travels determines the type of technology used. Users have many things to consider, including the type of drive system, frame material, and the conveyance medium. Robots play a key role in this process, according to Stiff.


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Conveyors work with four robot types

A conveyor network has many different moving parts, including robots, said Stiff. He listed four robot types 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 (ASRS), and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). 

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, he explained.

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. ASRS. 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.

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.
Emmet Stiff spoke about strategies to maximize throughput for robotics applications at MODEX in Atlanta. | Source: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Bringing robots into the conveyance process

Stiff said modern automated projects can 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.”

Editor’s NoteThis article was syndicated from Mobile Robot Guide sibling site Plant Engineering

Written by

Chris Vavra

Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.