Dematic develops the Multishuttle

The revolution in warehouse logistics and picking drives automation and digitization in logistics

The Multishuttle was invented at the Fraunhofer Institute in Dortmund, and developed at Dematic. Ever since 2006, it has been revolutionising warehouse logistics and order picking, driving automation and digitisation in logistics. Here is its story.

The Multishuttle didn’t just fall from the sky. Just as after 1819, the first German steam engines "went into series production" at the Mechanical Workshops Harkort & Co., an early relative of Dematic in Wetter an der Ruhr, more than 100 years after being "invented" in England - the warehousing logistics revolution caused by the Multishuttle needed time and inventors.

However, since time alone does not invent anything, it also requires prophets, thinkers and reflectors who look beyond the boundaries of everyday business life in order to recognise and develop the missing aspects.

One type of institution for technical reflection is the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics in Dortmund. Since 2000 it has been headed by Michael ten Hompel; and here at the IML in the spring of 2001 began the story of a device that, after its market launch in 2006, became a basic component of what is now called "Industry 4.0" in logistics, and operates under catchphrases such as "Internet of Things" and "Cellular Intralogistics”.


Brainstorming in the café

It all started in a café in south Dortmund. Here, the head of the Fraunhofer department for machinery and equipment from 1999 to 2004, Volker Jungbluth, had assembled his team in the spring of 2001 – for the annual "brainstorming session". And as a task Jungbluth posed a question: Why did the market not believe in the benefits of a system that had been conceived five or six years ago at the institute but had been barely sold?

It was an "autonomous storage vehicle" called "Alf" as Jungbluth recalls. This was a pallet shuttle in a mobile racking system, with the control panel on the front.

The reflection in the café concluded that the device was too heavy. Like previously established pallet transport systems, it weighed more than 2.5 tonnes with batteries for the drive. This required the racks to have very stable and therefore expensive steel structures. And increased speed was also out of the question. 

In the case of the established automatic small parts warehouses, greater performance could only be achieved through higher capacity, i.e. through ever larger facilities. If you wanted to double the performance in automatic small parts warehouses, you had to apply this to the capacity. If a rack lane issues 100 containers, you would need ten lanes if 1,000 were required. But there was usually no room for that. 

That's why Jungbluth thought the idea was "really great" because higher throughput could be scaled independent of capacity. "This was a gamechanger," he recalls.


Become lighter

The goal was therefore: become lighter, save rack structure. The first weight savings were achieved by using lighter containers instead of pallets. The next step was to eliminate the big battery pack and replace it with bus bars on the rack where the shuttle carriages would run.

Developing this had been "quite funny" at times, remembers Jungbluth. For example, the WLAN was still in its infancy, "and we had positioning accuracy of plus/minus 1.5 meters". The weight saving therefore had to be taken back a little. The state of the art, after all, required a little more integration into the shuttle to remedy this problem.

The picking technique used was the roller gripper, which had already been developed at the Fraunhofer. These drove under the boxes and containers, rotated and pulled up the load. This load-carrying device was then also used in the first red Multishuttle, still at that time at Siemens Dematic.

The problem was that it was still quite heavy and had to be supported on the rack, which  still required expensive steel constructions. Also, the load could slip into the containers, and if heavy items were in the back of the box, you could no longer "bring them up”. The method was therefore too susceptible to failure, and as a result it was decided to switch to gripper arm rails.

For Dematic it was about serial suitability. The development team of Shin Yamashita - the Japanese had come from Australia to Dematic in 2005 - took the system after its acquisition of the Fraunhofer Institute in 2005, and then steadily developed it - into the multishuttles of today's Generation 2, which exist in different variants. At LogiMAT 2018, for example, the focus was on the Multishuttle 2 Freeze, designed for refrigerated and deep-freeze warehouses. 


Patents and parallels

Previously, in the 2001 patent application, the Fraunhofer team had made some interesting finds. Patent research revealed that there were already some in the early 1970s, by the Danish company FKI Logistex, which later became Crisplant. "The patents had expired, but the state of the art was outlined to a large extent," recalls Jungbluth: “In that sense, we patented the load handling device, some ideas for power transmission,  and then we built a test stand at the Fraunhofer." 

Why Crisplant, now part of Beumer, did not develop it further and why Beumer does not have its own shuttle today, remains an unanswered question. Jungbluth suspects that it was probably too early: “Batteries, wireless signal transmission, that was not so far back then. And at some point these patents fell into oblivion with the companies." 

This has parallels to a great story: even James Watt did not invent the first usable steam engine. However, in 1769 he had been able to patent his machine with good contacts in London. A machine invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen was already pumping water from mines. Steam pressure had already been experimented on in ancient times.

Rack shuttles were also being worked on by other companies at the same time. "When we had our prototype at the trade show, at LogiMAT, Knapp was also there, and we didn’t know anything about each other," says Jungbluth. His team was there, of course, looking: “But that was really a parallel development." Pallet shuttles had been known, as "channel vehicles" or"satellites". The principle was there: “We transferred it to containers”.

Naming: “Just stay on the ground!”

The naming of the product was also interesting: Jungbluth had problems imposing his favourite. His boss, ten Hompel, said at first: "Just stay on the ground, we don’t want to fly to the moon.” The word "shuttle" had a different meaning at that time. It was something that flew into space, the NASA Space Shuttle. But today it is this technology that is understood in the industry. And with the name Multishuttle "we really had fun with this idea and both promoted it fairly consistently," says Jungbluth today.

But there were also real obstacles. After completing the prototype everything was very turbulent, explains Jungbluth. Before switching to Dematic in April 2004 with the invention, "I was fond of trade fairs, promoting the technology, and I was tired of being laughed at." All the major small parts warehouse manufacturers said: “That's a crazy idea, it won’t last long.”

But there was also interest. At Dematic, Richard Kunder campaigned "because he believed in the benefits".  He invited the global Dematic- sales managers to the Fraunhofer Institute to assess the potential. But their unanimous response was sobering: None of the devices could be sold, he was told. The fear of cannibalising another product had probably loomed large at the beginning, suspects Jungbluth.
This is not a new thing: the Englishman William Lee had introduced a mechanical knitting machine in London in 1589, a good 100 years before this type of device was actually implemented in England. But Elisabeth I rejected it as did her successor James I. People feared political destabilisation, high unemployment, i.e. the negative aspects of greater productivity and creative destruction.

But Richard Kunder fought and prevailed, says Jungbluth. There were also other people at Dematic who believed in the cause: Johann Loettner, the then chairman, Matt Sexton in Sales, Jens Fankhänel, Glenn Borg from Australia and Shin Yamashita. “But even at Dematic, it was not easy at the beginning," says Jungbluth, until acceptance was finally gained and the beta shuttle was first installed at HK in Finland and Transpharm

First of all, control technology and software had to be developed, step by step and with a good deal of simulation: “That's what we had to understand first," says Jungbluth, "we needed algorithms to form a sequence of lanes and levels. This was not straightforward. It took us a long time to get it under control." The Multishuttle was quite "a few stages higher" in its complexity than an automatic small parts warehouse. If you had to synchronise at these two lanes, then each lane had 14 shuttles - so that was 28 times more complex.

Racks and reality

Shin Yamashita has made a name for himself in the further development of the Dematic, recalls inventor Jungbluth. He got costs under control, initial estimates had been too high. And indeed, Yamashita also remembers that there was still much to do to get the invention ready for the market.

After all, hardly any innovation comes up against a field with zero resistance. And this particular field had been built on racks for a long time. So Yamashita had to adapt the Multishuttle to common racking systems and containers, looking at the cost to potential shuttles. That was an aspect that had probably also contributed to the sales people's No a year ago.

Yamashita, as product manager Dematic Multishuttle, found the concept "very innovative", but considered it to be difficult, especially in view of the high racking costs. Under his aegis the current-carrying rack became the busbar. Also, the device for lifting the load did not fit the racks or the rack bottoms. Therefore, there were soon grab rails, and grab arms, telescopic devices reaching into the racks. Incidentally, the principle of this "captive system" followed an example that Yamashita had seen in Japan, but which had not been developed there from more of an "agricultural" than industrial stage, without patents. 

The focus was then on the easier-to-market captive variant. Roaming variants of the multishuttle were “shelved” because of the additional rack costs for the customers. For him, "Roaming is not dead yet," says Yamashita. Ultimately, capacity is higher if a shuttle can go anywhere and is not limited to a few rack areas.

Dematic then solved the further problem of having to reposition containers with the patented inter-aisle transfer (iAT). On a Friday afternoon he had the "saving idea" of pulling the boxes towards the shuttle, with an even more extendable 8-finger system, says Yamashita. In conjunction with software, it can now position itself in the same way as in an opposite rack with the Inter-Aisle Transfer technology. Yamashita: "The benefits of changing shuttles between racks can also be achieved through Inter Aisle Transfer, just in other ways." 

“Move” Multishuttle shelved (provisionally)

Not everything that was thought up at the IML and at Dematic for the Multishuttle was ultimately implemented. In the history of industrialisation many inventions have been put aside, forever or until such time as they have become possible. For example, in 1801 Richard Trevithick installed a steam engine in a road vehicle. But famously nothing came of it.

With the Multishuttle, the "Move" was shelved for a while. At that time, for Jungbluth the next step was "to leave the rack  with the vehicle and to serve the order picker directly, wherever he was" - transport from source to destination, without any further transfer to other materials handling equipment.

At the IML Dematic had equipped a hall where the vehicles drove freely. But that was not perceived as marketable. The patents went to competitors. Although there are driverless transport systems, also from Dematic. For the Dematic-shuttle, which is placed on the rack and then elevated by lift, that was the end for the time being.

Because, as noted previously, the Multishuttle did not fall from the sky. It needed time, precursors and thinkers. It could not fall from the sky in the less figurative sense, because it cannot fly, at least not yet ...

And the future? According to Yamashita, Dematic is also working to get deeper into the rack to increase storage space. It is also about robotics and that shuttles "reach every product anywhere on the rack". Mobile 3D robots presented by other manufacturers at LogiMAT 2019 show where the market is currently heading. So the history of the Multishuttle is far from over. Not even with Dematic.