Toru carefully turns left. He approaches a row of shelves, stops, recognizes the ordered goods and moves his gripper arm up about two meters. Then he stretches it out to a shoebox, pulls the box on with suction cups and stows it inside.
When Toru sneaks through the corridors of Magazino’s headquarters in the Laim district of Munich, he is reminiscent of a chic white mini forklift with a glass driver’s housing – only without a driver in it. Because Toru is actually a robot that can move independently and pick out goods for orders. A kind of automated temporary worker who is already doing his job for some medium-sized logistics companies. “Toru fits into an environment made for people and works there,” says Frederik Brantner, who founded the start-up four years ago in the west of Munich. The young entrepreneur builds the robot and now employs more than 100 people.
Hard-working helpers with gripper arms who stand and weld in a factory have been around for decades – even in medium-sized companies in the manufacturing sector. Now, however, the robots are getting smart and fitting into Industry 4.0: They learn movement sequences that only humans were able to do until now, find their way around in a networked world and no longer have to be put in cages in order not to endanger anyone. “A new wave of automation is currently starting, which is based primarily on artificial intelligence,” says Nadine Kammerlander, who heads the chair for family businesses at the University of Economics and Business.
This is also confirmed by figures published by the International Federation of Robotics at the end of June: According to this, more than 380,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide last year – that is almost 30 percent more than a year earlier. Most are used in the automotive industry. Companies from the electrical engineering industry and metal processing are also ordering more and more robots. So far, mainly corporations have used the mostly still expensive machines. But the helpers are becoming cheaper and cheaper – and therefore affordable for medium-sized companies as well.
In a workshop right next to the room with the shelves in Munich, the mechatronics engineers from Magazino are working on Toru and his big brother Soto. The latter can recognize and load not only shoe boxes, but also larger objects. With the two robots, the founding team around Frederik Brantner would like to offer logisticians the solution to one of their most pressing problems. As a survey by the industry association shows, two thirds of companies find it difficult to find suitable employees. Because it is physically demanding to stretch and bend over to the shelves, warehouse workers call in sick more often than in other professions.
If Brantner has his way, Toru not only cushions the shortage of skilled workers, but also relieves the human colleagues: Because the robot, he proudly reports, is the first to reach low shelves at a height of five centimeters as well as the highest at two and a half meters. He can also do something that every toddler can do, but which robots have previously found difficult: look and reach for something. With the help of its built-in 3-D camera, Toru identifies the desired object and then grasps it. In this way, he can not only move entire shelves, but also take out certain goods.
Thanks to built-in sensors, the robot recognizes when people approach. He then waits a short time and takes another route if the obstacle does not disappear. In this way, he can also work with human colleagues. At the textile logistics company Meyer & Meyer, Toru has been working in duplicate since April to store and retrieve shoe boxes in Peine, Lower Saxony. The family company Fiege Logistik is already using two copies and has ordered 30 more from Magazino. In addition to the internet clothing retailer and the technology group Körber, Fiege Logistik is also one of the companies that invested a total of 20.1 million euros in the start-up at the beginning of the year.
With human-like beings like R2D2 from “Star Wars” or the cute Wall-E from the Pixar film of the same name, the smart robots that are preparing to automate today have little to do with it. In contrast to the well-known Pepper service robot, the industrial counterparts have to work like a forklift.