No good deed goes unpunished and that goes double for robots. They may improve manufacturing efficiency, but an improvement in one place often shows up a glaring inefficiency somewhere else. In an effort to help supply logistics keep up with robotic manufacturing, the EU's Pan-Robots project is working to create warehouse robots that are faster, more efficient, and safer than both manual operations or current robotic systems.

Robots are already being used routinely in factories for manufacturing and packaging, but a factory is more than just an assembly line or a packing station. It has a logistical tail feeding from the supply warehouse to the production area, but this bit still depends on slow, costly, error-prone, manual labor to get the job done. Subsequently, it's a bit of a bottleneck as workers with forklifts try to keep up with the machine they're feeding. This problem becomes particularly acute in businesses that use a just-in-time model, where a delay anywhere along the supply route can have a cascading failure effect as each stage runs out of materials.

Many firms are trying to automate the warehouse phase of their operations with Automatic Guided Vehicles (AVG) with some success, but the Pan-Robots project sees a lot of room for improvement through the use of on-board cameras, laser scanners, 3D maps, and intelligent systems that would make them not only more efficient, but also safer.

Made up of six partners from five EU nations, Pan-Robots is an EU-funded project to the tune of €3,33 million (about US$3.6 million) to develop new technologies for the “Factory-of-the-Future” (FoF). Currently, the project is aiming at producing more advanced on-board camera systems and laser scanners to help the robots to navigate warehouses using 3D maps under the guidance of a control center.

Pan-Robots says that the key technology is a stereo camera with fisheye lenses that's installed on top of an AGV, which resembles a driverless forklift. This not only produces 3D images, but also provides the robot with 360-degree vision. This works in concert with 2D laser scanners that look out for blind spots and keeps the machine from accidentally running into people. The robots also work with scanners set at strategic points at intersections to allow them to effectively see around corners.

The project claims that the system provides considerable savings, such as economies of 90 percent on installation, which can be done in a third of the time over other robotics because the mapping system uses natural landmarks rather than specially installed reflectors as datum points. In addition, the AGVs use half the energy of forklifts, and because they are faster than existing robots, fewer are needed to do the same job.

Pan-Robots says that it's conducted tests at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Madrid and plans to expand to another in Bilbao with a final demonstration scheduled before the project's October deadline to show how the technology can be adapted for different facilities. The partners are also looking at other applications of the technology and believe that half of Europe's factories could be employing AGVs by 2030.

The video below outlines the Pan-Robots project.