Offering high compute-density in a modular form, computer-on-modules (COMs) offer a powerful solution for embedded systems. In this article, congatec’s Dan Demers shares how pharmaceutical distributor Transpharm used COM boards and the Xito development platform to build autonomous robots that perform warehouse material-handling duties
Automation of the materials handling processes has long been a driver of innovation and investment in the “intralogistics sector.” In many areas, processes can be automated using a wide variety of materials handling solutions to accelerate material and goods flows, and to shorten work processes. But there are also areas that can’t be easliy automated by just installing fixed-conveyor technology. And not every warehouse can become an automated “high-bay” warehouse. (A high-bay warehouse has shelves sometimes up to 50 meters high.) Advanced warehouses call for steep investments—investments that are only justified by increased throughput. They also require storage bays that are highly standardized.
These challenges were on the table for Germany’s largest distributor of pharmaceuticals: Transpharm Logistik (part of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries). At Transpharm, the promotional products change frequently and come in different shapes, sizes and weights. This meant that staff had to pick them individually for each recipient. In order to find a more efficient process, Martin Zwiebel, supply chain analyst at Transpharm, was tasked to optimize the pick and delivery process further. “Staff were using heavy, bulky carts to pick promotional products,” says Zwiebel.
Equipped with tablets, and supported in some cases by pick-by-light systems, they gathered the individual items from across the entire warehouse and then wheeled the cart with the complete pick to the packing department, where the promotional products were made ready for dispatch. “When looking for a faster and easier solution, it became apparent that a driverless transport system promised significant advantages,” says Zwiebel. With that in mind, he decided that what was needed was an affordable robotic trolley that could autonomously find its way to the next storage bay following a predefined optimized route. Such a robotic trolley would prove a constant and helpful companion to staff (Figure 1).
COMPATIBILITY IS THE KEY
For this effort, Zwiebel decided to use the open, vendor-independent platform Xito (www.xito.one). Xito is a modular building block system and software ecosystem from Toolify Robotics for the design, interface management, implementation and operation of customized autonomous intralogistics vehicles and robots (Figure 2). Xito grew out of a joint project between several universities. The startup Toolify went on to develop the concept into a market-ready solution as a spin-off of Ulm University of Technology. Zwiebel used the platform to easily assemble an autonomous picking cart, customized with his own ideas and requirements.
“I was able to pick the most suitable components from the Xito marketplace and connect them together,” says Zwiebel. The Xito marketplace today offers more than 50 hardware building blocks for various autonomous transport logistics and mobile pick-and-place robotics applications: navigation, augmented or virtual reality, localization, intelligent obstacle avoidance, speech and object recognition, RFID readers and so on. Even functions like grasping and positioning are possible.
Dr. Dennis Stampfer, CEO and co-founder of Toolify Robotics, developed the necessary software for the modular system with his team. “We offer easy-to-use tools to create plug-and-play components that make it comparatively simple to realize quite complex robotics applications,” says Dr. Stampfer. Xito drastically simplifies and accelerates the programming of robotic applications, requiring no expert knowledge. “The overall system consists of many different subsystems and devices. We act as the interpreters with our manufacturer-independent platform.”
AUTONOMOUS ROBOTICS FOR ALL
Zwiebel’s system design provided Transpharm with a collaborative mobile robot that autonomously follows the pickers to the next relevant location. A pilot project with several robots went down extremely well with staff: Since then, they have been enjoying the robotic assistance as it means they no longer have to push the heavy picking carts by hand.
Just like before, picking begins at a specific starting point, but instead of a picking cart that is pushed like a shopping trolley, there is now a self-driving robotic cart with a tote waiting to accompany pickers. When all the picks have been made, they send the robot with the picked items to the packing department. To take itself there, as well as when driving around in the warehouse, the robotic cart follows route-optimized pre-defined paths. And a new empty robot waits at the starting point, ready for the next picking task.
“Xito made it easy, quick and affordable to configure an autonomous logistics vehicle that perfectly fits our specific picking task,” confirms Martin Zwiebel. “Everything worked flawlessly. That is not a given. Without a development kit like Xito, the individual components often lack the required compatibility, necessitating immensely costly efforts to develop a working software and hardware solution—costs that often exceed the financial means of small and medium-sized companies.”
Depending on the requirements, Xito saves users up to 75% of the development and implementation time of conventional solutions. This is because they can use simple, less expensive standard components that would not be able to communicate with each other without the Xito development kit. Another advantage: The individual building blocks of the kit are reusable and can also be assembled differently. This makes solutions viable that would previously have needed extremely high throughput and scaling to offset the costs. At Transpharm’s warehouse, three such autonomous picking carts are fully sufficient for handling the promotional products.
COMS FOR THE MODULAR KIT
“The integration capabilities and advanced modularity of Xito needed a similarly modular and flexible hardware architecture as one of the core components,” explains Dr. Stampfer. After all, the required computing performance of the individual Xito solutions varies depending on how the modular components are assembled. With that in mind, the platform therefore embeds COM (computer-on-module) boards because they enable flexible scaling of computing power (Figure 3). Aside from to task-specific load balancing, this also allows application-specific price and performance balancing.
The latest COM boards to be supported in Xito are based on the COM Express compact form factor and feature the new 11th generation Intel Core processors (Tiger Lake). They scale in performance up to the Intel Core i7. For low-power or cost-sensitive applications, there are modules based on the Intel x6000 Intel Atom Celeron and Pentium processors (Elkhart Lake) (Figure 4). Developers can scale their applications across 15 different performance levels based on this new processor technology alone.
Many further variants can be created using other processor platforms. That’s because they are quasi pin-compatible thanks to the COM Express module standard and can be scaled across all processor architectures. For robotic applications in particularly harsh environments, there are modules that are specifically designed for the extended temperature range of -40°C to 85°C (Figure 5). This expands the field of robotics for logistics applications from cold storage right across to large bakeries, where robots could, for instance, be deployed to move trolleys with racks of freshly baked goods in the immediate vicinity of the ovens.
These options can be expanded even further by using real-time capable hypervisor technology. Support for hypervisors from Real-Time Systems (www.real-time-systems.com) is standard on all x86 COMs from congatec. These hypervisors enable multiple operating systems—both real-time operating systems (RTOSes) and standard operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Linux—to run in parallel on x86 multicore processors while retaining their hard real-time characteristics. This makes the modular congatec systems at the heart of the Xito robots highly configurable for a wide variety of tasks and subsystems.
For their next designs, systems designers should consider the new PICMG form factor COM-HPC. COM-HPC is not intended as a replacement for COM Express, rather it extends the COM concept to a full featured Server-on-Module. On the congatec website, there’s a page at  with rich information about COM-HPC, including a set of white papers to guide developers through the decision-making process and provide more details on the new COM-HPC standard.
PRODUCTIVITY AND POTENTIAL
Robotics is booming, but for many small and medium-sized companies the investment is too high. “We help to make the development of robotic solutions simpler and more sustainable so that small companies can also reap the benefits of this technology,” explains Stampfer. Without congatec’s Computer-on-Modules, however, such flexibility and modularity would be hard to imagine.
Zwiebel estimates that Transpharm increased its productivity by 20% to 25% thanks to the new robotic solution. Now he is already planning what next projects to tackle with Xito. “Refrigerated picking faces similar challenges: a constantly growing portfolio and more agile processes. Besides, the prevalent space constraints do not allow automation with conventional conveyor technology.” He also sees potential for Xito systems in production and quality assurance, and maybe picking itself can also be realized automatically with a robotic transport system in the future.
congatec | www.congatec.com
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • SEPTEMBER 2021 #374 – Get a PDF of the issue