Unloading 40 foot long shipping containers involves heavy manual labour. It can be difficult to find people willing to do this kind of work, so the Bremen Institute for Production and Logistics (BIBA) is developing a robot to take it on. BIBA’s partners on the IRiS federal research project, which is set to cost €3.16 million, are BLG LOGISTICS, Munich-based image processing specialist FRAMOS and Bremen-based SCHULZ Systemtechnik.
Britta Philipsen, site manager at BLG’s Neustädter Hafen logistics centre, invited all parties to the centre shortly after the IRiS project was launched in September 2017. Her reason for inviting the partners to Europe’s largest high-bay storage facility was to ensure that they are aware of the size of the task. “You have to get an idea of the dimensions we are dealing with here,” says Philipsen, a logistics expert whose degree dissertation at Bremen University explored innovation management at logistics service providers. The site near Bremen’s Cargo Distribution Center (GVZ) houses 200,000 pallets and turns over up to 8,500 of them every day. “Doing this manually is no longer an option,” says Philipsen.
Innovation in port technology
Traditionally, the logistics service sector is very labour intensive, but like any other industry it is affected by technological change, according to Philipsen. The unloading of shipping containers is one of the few non-automated processes left in the logistics chain. And this is where the IRiS robot can help. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure made €3.3 million available from the IHATEC programme, which specifically supports innovative port technology, to fund the project.
Philipsen names three reasons why BLG opted to take a 50 per cent stake in the research project: “I really struggle to hire people to do this job. These days, very few people are willing to unload containers.” She hopes that IRiS, the interactive robotic system for unloading shipping containers, will remove the burden from her employees in the long term: “It’s also a question of health and safety. Providing technological support for such heavy manual labour makes sense.” She is also looking to retrain her existing workforce and turn them into machine operators, for example. And an additional benefit of acquiring new skills is better pay.
Her employees are working with Philipsen on the project: “Technological change needs to be communicated properly to ensure that employees accept it. Including our foremen and coordinators in the initial workshops has been an important part of this. My colleagues provided their input and are now set to introduce the new technology in two years’ time.”