used to optimize routes and track materials. And unlike
me, they won’t get bored or tired. And while towards the
end, I became more haphazard in avoiding other people
in the crowds, probably bumping into a few to squeeze
by to make an interview, their sensors and programming
ensure there are no unintended collisions.
This, combined with advances in self-driving tech over
the last decade, has created the perfect environment
for a steady parade of innovative mobile robotics all
jockeying to lead the pack, all trying to find their niche,
all trying to usurp the status quo.
FORK TO TABLE
When the first industrial robots entered the production
space, people started dying in horrific new ways. The
solution was to cage the beasts, which wasn’t able to
totally offset humans’ propensity to find needless ways
to die, but overall effective. The 21st century answer
was to create collaborative robots that can safely work
alongside people due to softer, lighter bodies and a bevy
of sensors to keep them true to Asimov’s rules.
Meanwhile, forklifts predate industrial robots by more
than half a century, and as of 2007 OSHA calculated they
were the cause of 85 fatalities and 34,900 serious injuries per year. More widely used by an inordinate number
and inoperable without human interaction, they remain
a necessary risk. The idea of more collaborative mobile
robots out in the field could change that.
“Our guess is we’ll see a boom in the coming years,”
offered Thomas Visti, CEO of Mobile Industrial Robots,
who I met at IMTS.
MiR, which has seen 140% growth this year (300%
in 2017), will likely be at the forefront of this boom with
the plucky MiR500, designed specifically to replace lift
trucks across a range of industries. The Danish company
debuted it for American audiences in Chicago, though it
first appeared at Automatica 2018. It became available
Unlike the earlier, smaller MiR100 and MiR200 (a
2018 NED Innovation Award winner), this bigger version
(1350 x 920 mm) can handle pallets—both European
and 40 x 48 in.—with ease. With all three, the number
designation indicates payload in kilograms, which for
the MiR500 equals 1,100 lb. An additional lifting device,
depending on the type of pallet, can be attached to the
top of its platform to raise or lower the pallets after it
slides in or out of the specially designed rack, basically
two opposing metal brackets spaced slightly wider than
It was created based on demand from customers
with large parts.
“From a safety point of view, [manufacturers] don’t
want to drive a forklift, so they’re moving to autonomous
products that are more collaborative,” says Visti, who
formerly worked with cobot creator Universal Robots.
And by the looks of its sturdy, compact frame, it could
certainly challenge forklifts
“The MiR500 is an extremely robust robot, with an
exterior that can withstand dropped cargo and can navi-
gate up and down ramps and even through shallow water
puddles,” Visti says.
He adds that it’s extremely user-friendly and can be
controlled and programmed without any prior experience
using a smart device. The MiR500 uses the same software as the previous models, relying on two 3D cameras
that can detect objects 11 feet away, and a SICK Micros-
can3 safety laser scanner system for 360-deg. coverage.
“It drives safely between people that are moving and
other moving machines,” says Jakob Klokker, project
assistant at the Kverneland Group, an agricultural machine maker who has already tested the MiR500 as the
material handling solution for taking pieces from one
process cell to another.
He agrees it is user-friendly.
“We can use the map in the robot interface to easily
plan where we want it to drive and where we don’t want
it to drive, so we can define the optimal routes for us,”
As a one-off, the robot uses its own internal WiFi, but
a fleet requires the facility to have WiFi.
“Basically, there are not many other limitations of the
MiR500, and as a customer you can set the expectations
high,” Visti says.
It appears they have.
“This is a dream come true for us,” says Patrick Garin,
president, Cabka North America. “We are one of the
largest plastic pallets manufactures in the world and
now have a collaborative robot that can perform mul-
tiple tasks. We have big plans with this MiR500, from
stacking our pallets coming out of our production lines
on the MiR500 to preparing outbound deliveries at night
when there is no activity in the warehouse.”
Visti says the that the buy-in from several multinational
corporations, “equaling hundreds of installations,” for
MiR’s range of mobile robots, indicates one thing.
“They want to have all forklifts out,” he says. “The
business case is there, the technology is there and the
customers are ready to test it and install it.”
He believes overall that the wider adoption of mobile
robots could noticeably affect forklift injury and death
stats in the next two or three years.
The CEO was hesitant to speculate on a fixed ROI this
early, but from a holistic perspective, says it positively
impacts both production and payroll.
“There is a low total cost of ownership due to easy
implementation and the natural optimizations, such as
optimized logistics workflows, which frees staff resources
so customers can increase production and reduce costs,”
MOVE IT OR LOSE IT
A few hours after speaking with Visti, I sat down with
Jeff Christensen, VP of product at Seegrid, a Pittsburgh
manufacturer of self-driving pallet trucks with deep ties
to Carnegie Mellon. It’s their chief scientist, Hans Moravec, who worked out stereoscopic vision guidance for
autonomous vehicles. The company calls their material
handlers VGVs (Vision Guided Vehicles).
Seegrid’s product line, which was expanded with the
GT10 Series 6 Plus at IMTS, uses five pairs of cameras
that operate like human’s stereoscopic vision, so they
can perceive depth. The GT10 also has back-facing cameras to sense when it is hitching to a cart. Their form
factor resembles a typical forklift but without the fork.
They still have a platform for a person to stand and
operate manually via a steering wheel.
The intent is for customers to use this feature as little
“The economic costs of a manual driver of an indus-
trial truck add up,” the Carnegie Mellon graduate says.
“It’s not just the hourly rate. It’s a fully burdened rate.
And turnover is enormous. Some customers have 300%
turnover of material handling drivers.”
Jobs evolve, particularly during explosions of new
technology, and lift truck operator seems to be on its
way out. Christensen says it’s by their choice.
“They are leaving this sector and getting, frankly, a
higher paying job doing something that is more interesting anyway,” he says.
“The best way to create a safer work environment,
when many issues are caused by forklifts,
is to remove them entirely.”