The online mail order company Zalando has tested two robots at the Erfurt logistics centre to support its employees. Now they are going into pilot operation with real customer orders.
In October 2018, Zalando, together with the robotics company Magazino, trialled using robots to relieve logistics employees of non-ergonomic tasks. Named TORU (Jspasnese for “take”) the robots can pick up and place individual shoe boxes. This distinguishes them from the majority of other robotic systems, which frequently move entire pallets or crates but are unable to pick up individual products. After the two robots have been tested in the Erfurt logistics centre, they now travel to Lahr in the Black Forest to process customer orders in the pilot operation, where they will be supported by six more TORUS.
Carl-Friedrich zu Knyphausen, Head of Logistics Development at Zalando, has accompanied the TORUs since the first test plans. “Together with Magazino, we had agreed certain parameters to determine when it would pay off for us to use the robots. These naturally inivolved error-free handling of our range of products – in this case shoe cartons, the number of boxes picked, and the downtimes of the robots,” he explains. At first, for example, the robots were idle for longer during operation due to recognition errors or computing times. Reducing this downtime considerably increased the number of picks per hour, zu Knyphausen continues.
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When TORU is standing in front of a stack of shoe boxes, it looks at the shelf with its 2D and 3D cameras to determine where each box begins and ends. This is particularly difficult: If two cartons of the same colour are precisely on top of each other, almost no edges are visible. With the help of artificial intelligence, TORU learned with every pick, and can now fall back on its wealth of experience in particularly tricky cases. Now it has enough data and knowledge to reduce downtimes.
Asked if the robots would now be used more, the Zalando logistics expert explains, “We‘re testing technologies to take over physically strenuous or monotonous tasks from our employees. TORU relieves our employees of non-ergonomic tasks such as bending and stretching when picking products from the top or bottom shelves. So it is not a matter of switching completely to automation. Our strategy is clearly to combine humans and technology.“