How An Interactive Robotic System Can Unload Shipping Containers
A university in Germany is developing a robot to unload shipping containers. This is one of the most complex processes in shipping container logistics.
Robots on the march
One of the coolest things about shipping containers is that they can carry almost anything and be moved around the world in a super-efficient process that is becoming ever more automated as more and more complex tasks in container logistics are being done by robots.
Moving one of two sizes of container – the 20ft and the 40ft – is relatively simple. This is why many port operations are fully automated. Once the box is taken off the ship (using a human crane operator) it can be lowered onto a self-driving truck and moved to a stack where another robot can stack it and then take it to a train, truck or other ship for the next phase of the journey. The ancient trade of the Stevedore dockworker has been replaced with men in offices and just a few men on the ground, while robots get on with the heavy work.
Picking and packing
Automation can only go so far in some industries. You may read of pickers and packers at online companies being worked into the ground for low wages during the Christmas shopping season. Paid terribly and worked sometimes to the point of physical and mental breakdown, the human pickers and packers are doing a job that industry bosses badly want to be replaced with robots to drive more efficiencies into the supply chain and increase the profitability of their goods. There’s a problem here – robots can’t do it just now. Why?
Moving one of two sized shipping containers around an ordered environment is relatively simple. Taking packages of a huge range of sizes, perhaps a mixture of packages from the size of a cellphone case at one end of the scale, to one of a bicycle at the other, is a different game. It requires a set of judgements that humans find easy with our petabyte capacity brains, but baffles even the most complex computer systems in part because no one has invented a computer as powerful and efficient as a human brain – so far.
But when it comes to logistics and shipping it’s a different story. Robots are threatening millions of jobs in this industry. The Interactive Robotic System for Unloading of Sea Containers (IRiS) project is being run by the University of Bremen in Germany, the robotics company FRAMOS and two other German businesses.
According to a statement from FRAMOS, “The robot will be equipped with an innovative grappling system that will move autonomously between the gates and drive directly into the container. The robot, equipped with machine learning methods, will independently classify different packing scenarios and use this information to unload the containers in the best possible way.”
“Object recognition is based on 2D/3D image data. It uses state-of-the-art image processing and combines these with machine learning techniques, such as deep learning,” explains Dr. Simon Che’Rose, Head of Engineering at FRAMOS. “This allows the system to detect whether a container can be unloaded fully automatically, or whether manual control of the robot is required in special situations. The location and orientation of the contents are analyzed fully in advance, allowing optimum planning of the unloading process.”
The unmanned supply chain
Like it or not, the world of logistics is marching away from being a ‘blue collar’ to a ‘white collar’ world. Large numbers of low paid manual workers will be replaced with relatively few, highly trained robot mechanics and many of the payroll and low grade admin back office staff will be replaced with fewer, yet highly paid, software engineers. Ultimately, the cost savings to be driven into an unmanned supply chain will make the billionaire class of this world so rich they could have bonfires of $100 bills every week and still not have to worry about money.
Those who don’t go for highly skilled trades or professions after their school years? That world is as threatened now as farm labourers were in the 1800’s by threshing and harvesting machines. Together with self-driving trucks, the IRiS shipping container unpacking system is set to help erase the last low skilled job from land-side logistics. Robot ships and robot trains are coming too. The world of our children is going to be totally different to the one we grew up in.
Gateway Container Sales
Need a secondhand shipping container? Gateway Container Sales has hundreds of used shipping containers for purchase or hire. We also have an on-site workshop for making a variety of container modifications. Contact us if you have an idea for a shipping container project and our team will be happy to help!