Written by Gopal Mitra, Industry Leader at ABB Energy Conversion
Modern repository runs on bots. The past few decades have seen major advances in robotics and logistics, allowing future warehouses to take shape. Within the walls of these facilities, robots automate nearly every job — from racking and packing to dispensing, cleaning and more. These robots have succeeded in improving efficiency despite the ever-increasing customer demand, helping companies not only achieve their goals but also grow and improve.
Although robots simplify operations, they do not eliminate all logistical challenges from warehouses. When imagining an automated facility, one might assume that it could operate at full capacity around the clock. However, robots are not without their own set of needs. Just as human workers must sleep and eat, autonomous mobile robots (AMR) and automated guided vehicles (AVGs) must be charged. As such, improving when, how and where they draw power for their batteries is a huge hurdle for operators and engineers.
While the industry is primarily driven by the constant pursuit of operational efficiency, the vast majority of AMRs and AGVs today in manufacturing and warehouses continue to rely on contact-based shipping. Connecting robots to chargers presents more of a paradoxical challenge; While this method is effective and produces highly efficient fees, the long downtime and need for human intervention associated with the practice are less than ideal for operators.
First, wired charging in robotic installations goes against the purpose of robots. While it increases efficiency, AMRs and AGVs that use contact-based charging are far from completely autonomous. They need a human technician to supervise the shipping process. This technician should also maintain the charging ports and wires, replace the high-current contacts, and install new connectors as these items deteriorate over time.
Moreover, mobile warehouse bots can take up to 30% of service time to be fully charged. This is often the best case scenario – one in which engineers optimally optimize the battery capacity and power requirements. The higher the power requirements of the robot, the more batteries are required. While larger batteries allow for higher charging capacities, using them results in heavier robots that require more power and take longer to charge. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s a loop with no easy solution except to modify the general approach.
Despite the widespread use of wireless charging for consumer devices such as cell phones, this practice has not become common in the world of warehouse robots due to the limitations of the technology. However, advances in wireless charging technologies may bring us closer to the wireless future.
Coupled resonant induction technologies can provide highly efficient power transmissions without cables, removing the primary obstacle to widespread wireless charging implementation. Through convergent resonant induction, wireless chargers can deliver power at 90% efficiency at distances of up to a quarter of an inch away from the battery. However, alignment will be a challenge. If it is misaligned, the energy lost during operation can be significant. While wired charging has fewer losses in power transmission than wireless options, this innovation helps greatly to bridge the efficiency gap and represents a step in the right direction for those hoping to reap the other benefits of wireless charging.
This advance opens the door to reimagined charging schedules that allow robots with high-charge duty-cycle batteries while performing stationary tasks or during normal downtimes in their routines. Once wireless charging is enabled on a large scale, robotic workforces can draw power to “charge” their batteries while they go through tasks. This effectively eliminates the need for prolonged downtime due to charging needs, enhancing overall productivity.
In addition, the reduced need for precise docking makes human intervention in robotic operations less critical to operations. At the same time, it improves safety for those human workers who need to interact with robots, as wireless charging eliminates exposed electrical contacts. The result is a more efficient and secure repository. More flexible charge alignment in coupled resonance induction may bring the possibility of fully automated and intelligent utilities into sharper focus.
What stands in the way?
While easing hour-long charging times presents a huge opportunity for warehouse automation and efficiency, operators may not make plans for fully wireless use. Even with convergent resonant induction, fully wireless repositories still face some significant challenges. To make this vision a reality, energy professionals will need to develop new infrastructure, and operators will need to modify their facilities to support additional charging. Charging contacts must be strategically placed throughout the floor to enable robots of different sizes and varying power needs to draw power while completing daily tasks.
It’s no small logistical matter.
Meanwhile, robotics engineers will need to re-evaluate their approach to supplying power to robots. With additional charging, the requirements for batteries differ from those for batteries intended for charging to their capacity on a regular schedule. While this approach means that engineers may be able to use smaller, lighter batteries in some robots, there is always a learning curve to understanding the capabilities, requirements, and drawbacks of new technologies.
Finally, power engineers will need to continue improving the efficiency of converged resonant induction chargers to better match wired connections. And it won’t be easy. With an air gap in charge designs based on resonance and inductance coupling, localized heating due to stray currents, electromagnetic interference and accompanying audible noise may prove insurmountable obstacles. It is a challenge that power engineers who pursue wireless power transmission with enthusiasm, but have not yet achieved, are working on.
The dream of highly efficient, automated and intelligent warehouses and manufacturing facilities is still alive and thriving. The progress we’ve made is significant, and the great minds working behind the scenes to deliver this future are showing no signs of quitting. Every day, robotics, energy and logistics professionals strive for innovations that will bring us closer to an efficient wireless world.
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