Automation solutions for the logistics industry

Fives: because industry can do it

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Read this success story to find out how Fives, together with KEBA, succeeded in solving the challenges of intelligent automation in the field of sorting and conveyor technology.

Fives group, headquartered in France, is a group of industrial companies with more than 8,500 employees that develop, produce and sell high precision machines, process technologies and smart automation solutions. With a history of more than 200 years, the group nowadays has over 100 locations worldwide and a sales volume of 2,027 Million Euros (2022). Their goal: generate solutions that enable industries to become more efficient.

And it is indeed the idea of efficiency that drives the business. Also in the cooperation with KEBA Industrial Automation, which started 2007. Aldo Bucci, General Manager of KEBA in Italy who has assisted Fives from the very beginning onwards: “We have had a very good relationship with Fives for many years and have been supporting them in the area of smart automation solutions. Fives, by the way, is one of the first customers of KEBA in the Italian market.”

The Fives branch that deals with solutions for smart automation serves customers in different areas: from baggage handling at airports and logistic solution for e-commerce, over sorting and conveying solutions for distribution as well as parcel and postal companies. It is for the latter category that KEBA got involved to solve Fives’ automation pain points.

Pain point 1: drives tended to overheat

Fives was confronted with a safety issue at their customers’: existing drives of cross belt sorting applications could get too hot and possibly cause fire. The reason: machines are moved by many motors that are driven in torque. If one group of drives is off, the motor is still running while the machine is running. The motor hence feeds energy into the drive that is off, which could cause overheating of the drive - possibly leading to risk of fire. Lorenzo Chierego, CTO at Fives Intralogistics and in charge of Research and Development: “Safety regulations expect a motor to stop as soon as it detects an error. We started looking for alternatives on the market – what we needed were drives that detect overheating and as such protect themselves.” KEBA Industrial Automation was able to offer a solution that removed this critical pain point: they designed, as a firmware to the drive, a functionality that permanently monitors temperatures of drives. Gianluca Mangialardo, technical engineer with KEBA Italy: “We monitor the temperature of power stages, of the braking resistor, the over current to the drives and any other possible critical condition that can lead to potential damage of the device. If one of these parameters exceeds a certain level, the energy generator is physically disconnected from the drive. An extensive self-protecting functionality, so to speak, that allows to increase the availability of the drive system.”

Pain point 2: gear box: high noise and low dynamics

A second hurdle Fives needed to tackle in order to improve the performance of its solutions was the design of the drives. Chierego: “We were looking for drives with low noise and high dynamics – what we had was the opposite: The drives with built in gear boxes are very noisy, you have to measure the tension of the belt carefully while mounting and their heavy weight also means a permanent heavy load on the belt which accelerates the wear of the plant.” Fives made a bench mark of different drives and motors. The inertia of both motor and loads basically covers a certain range (1-10 / 1-30). “KEBA was able to extend the range – their drives cover 1-100, which is way better than standard design criteria”, adds Chierego. KEBA was able to offer this unusual solution because of the high level of control loops. “We now build in direct drive motors with a compact design – they are easier to integrate and much easier to install. Comparable motors from other manufacturers have double the size,” Chierego proudly adds.

The cooperation: a matter of expertise and eye-level

The cooperation between Fives and KEBA is a long-lasting one characterized by exchange of ideas on eye-level. Chierego: “KEBA is much more than a supplier. They think along with us and support us at every stage we are as a company. In these days, where cost structures are getting more important, KEBA thinks along. We put our heads together where we can reduce costs even more – this goes way beyond the typical relationship between supplier and customer.”

KEBA has not only been able to solve the above mentioned pain points. There have been further successes with Fives so far. Like the “one cable” solution. With this approach it has become much easier to wire, especially on site: with one cable the motor is connected to drives instead of two cables. Now this approach is common on the market, but ten years ago it was a real and unique selling point. Chierego: “This is where KEBA differentiates from competition most – in those days no other company was able to deliver this”.

Looking into the future, KEBA will play an important role in the further development of Fives. Chierego: “One project we are working upon are cabinet-free drives. The current solution we have for drives requires larger cabinets – the target are drives that can be placed near the motor without the need of an electric cabinet. Here KEBA already has a solution close to release.”

A further project both companies co-develop at the moment is a swivel sorter. A swivel sorter is a sorting system for agile applications, not the big hub for sorting but a sorting station near the delivery site designed as a conveyor with three positions (left, straight, right). Chierego: “At the moment Fives buys a ready-to-use solution from Fives China. Fives EU want their own version of it because we think it fits the current needs like short term planning, local sourcing, not too much investment and so on. We tend to design it as a beltless solution. KEBA will be involved in this development, as we have always involved them in such basic developments.”

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Short Interview with Lorenzo Chierego, CTO at Fives Intralogistics and in charge of Research and Development

What are trends in the intralogistics industry?

Chierego: there are quite a few…Macro-economics heats the market right now - we work with big multinational companies and we sense the impact of the war in Ukraine, the tensions between China and the USA – the overall topic seems to be deglobalization. We still suffer from the supply chain issues. Our lessons learned: companies that were more robust, have survived. If you do not deliver anything, you are in trouble – you should be able to deliver at least part of the solution, offering nothing at all is no option. We rely on suppliers that are able to build solutions themselves in case something should go wrong (instead of relying on suppliers that only source elsewhere). KEBA fits into this scheme very well.

Furthermore, and also due to the geopolitical situation, we see a strong trend towards short term planning and ordering: companies only calculate short term (2-3 years) – ROI is calculated on these few years, they do not bother about life cycle, quality, noise, longevity, diagnostics, calculations, ….

A third trend we see is the fact that customers put automation down again into the single components. Cross belt machines have been our standard for many years, but is not our focus now – now our focus is on compact machines, since land / space is becoming more and more expensive and also if you use existing buildings it is easier to integrate compact intralogistics solutions.

A fourth important trend that impacts Fives’ business is the fact that in e-commerce parcels are getting more and more difficult to handle and become more diverse. Today you can buy anything and packaging is terrible: for instance earrings in a small envelope – products from Alibaba etc. all have to pass our machines. More and more online retailers do not care about standard packaging sizes, they just ship products as they are.

What according to you is the value of online services in your business – like condition monitoring?

Chierego: Our machines are very reliable, condition monitoring is not an issue at the moment - especially not when customers have to pay for it. It is an option in order to improve processes, to become better, but does not help a lot if a machine breaks down and people have to act. In focus are local solutions over cloud solutions - if lines are stopped, the harm is limited and not so heavy as in other industries where millions of euros or dollars get lost. Customers start using local tools more and more

Which common misunderstandings are you confronted with?

Chierego: Control requirements regarding security issues, for instance. Many big PLC suppliers push a lot on the final customers to convince them of their solutions – in our perception they tend to give uncomplete information to end customers and do not really talk openly about the importance of security, though. Where they do invest a lot of time is in lobbying. The result: There are far more options available than most people know, but this is steered by the big producers claiming only their solution cover all security levels. So according to me the way security is communicated and which options there are leads to misunderstanding. Consolidated standards would help here to get a neutral picture. This generates a lot of extra work for companies like Fives.

Are there disruptive technologies on the horizon?

Chierego: Artificial Intelligence (IA) could be such one: if you train models with your own data you can design a new system with half of the people - 70% of the work is done by one tool. The same goes for customers on the operational level - IA can support them in getting the best out of each system and may be shift the next investments. Sorting parcels still needs machines, but the HOW will differ a lot. Finding people willing to handle parcels in logistics is getting more and more difficult – especially with cooled goods and heavy goods. Here technology based on robotics is definitely an answer.

Cross belts are still state of the art in business and flexible for the future. Limits are to the machines and tools before and after the cross belt. We see a big rise in Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) use – they sort of do the same work as cross belts but are more flexible (with a sorter you have to define the layout at the beginning and changes are difficult) – with GeniAnt (Autonomous Mobile Robot Sorter) you can start fast and are flexible. You can always add further sorters or AGVs.

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