How the spin-off FORMIC from KIT uses small transport modules to move loads weighing several tones and what this has to do with ants.
What we can learn from ants
They are small, social and organised around a division of labour. They communicate via smells and have gigantic physical strength. They can lift several times of their body weight and even transport loads upside down or backwards over long distances to their nests – ants have true superpowers. It is hardly surprising that their properties enjoy great popularity in the transport sector. For a long time, lift trucks or forklifts were used helping to transport or move heavy machinery and goods. Some of these machines are even named "ants".
What works well for many transport goods, however, comes to an end for most assets and machinery. Shorter product life cycles or changes in the production layout are just some of the reasons why machines and assets have to be moved or removed in manufacturing companies. Not infrequently, these are large, bulky and weigh several tones – a challenge for their transport. "We have been involved in many industrial projects and have experienced, how time-consuming and complicated a machine exchange is with current methods. It frequently also affects other processes, which have to be paused in the worst case. What should promise a small improvement in the production process in the end is nerve-racking, tedious and consequently time- and cost-intensive in advance", explains Dr.-Ing. Benedikt Klee, co-founder of FORMIC Transportsystems.
One for all, all for one
It quickly became clear that a supporting technical solution was needed. Together with his co-founder Dr.-Ing. Maximilian Hochstein, Klee developed the modular transport system FORMIC25, which can lift heavy loads in a coordinated manner regardless of size and weight and move them safely – operated by just one person. The system consists of at least three to a maximum of fifteen relatively small, flat mobile modules. These approach the system by remote control and then operate automatically. They lift the load in formation via a lifting mechanism, move under the load and lower it onto themselves in a coordinated manner. "Since machines are very individual in shape and weight, the vehicles usually always dock in different places. That’s the reason, why the vehicles do not know where the others are. They act as a swarm and can determine their exact position in relation to each other with millimeter precision by means of camera-based object recognition. Only then do they move the load in formation to the destination", Hochstein describes the process in detail. In a figurative sense, the transport modules act as a social collective, like in an ant colony: Together they achieve a performance that a single animal cannot. A multitude of simple interactions gives rise to an intelligent overall structure and results in the perfect action for moving the system.
Does artificial intelligence not play a role?
The secret of swarm intelligence in ant colonies consists of simple, inflexible tasks and coordinated behaviour and rules within the swarm. The overall success thus lies in the social collective and the way of life based on the division of labour, not in the intelligence of single individuals. Applied to the FORMIC modular transport system, it quickly becomes clear why artificial intelligence only plays a subordinate role: "The use of AI is useful for recognizing complex relationships and solving abstract problems, for example in object recognition, i.e., vehicle recognition. However, the results are probability-based. Most of the time it works, but sometimes it doesn't. We cannot afford this uncertainty in safety-critical and control functions. In these cases, we need clear, deterministic processes so that the heavy, often expensive equipment can be moved without damage", says Hochstein.
Safe swarm behavior
To ensure that this automated process does not pose any danger to people or machines, the founders have implemented essential functions for the safety of the vehicles. "If a mistake should happen, for example because a vehicle drives in front of an obstacle and leaves the formation, dangers for the plant and bystanders must be avoided at all times. We did a detailed risk assessment at the beginning and found out how we could reduce dangers to a minimum. We had to develop corresponding sensors and mechanisms from scratch and install them in the vehicles", says Klee. Mechanical engineer Hochstein adds: "The sensors we developed detect potential hazards and provide an emergency stop in case of doubt. The vehicles directly stops." In addition to sensors, the founders have also developed parts of the electronics, the lifting mechanism and the software by themselves. They are currently building and testing the third prototype. The exchange with various industry partners and transport service providers helps them to gain valuable insights for the further development of the system.
Full speed ahead
The physical features as well as the enormous performance of the modules should be of particular interest to service companies in the transport sector, machine tool manufacturers or large manufacturing companies in order to implement adjustments in production chains flexibly and independently with less effort in the future. The Formic modules are small and space-saving, which means they can also be used in narrow corridors. Their running gear is designed to easily cross small irregularities such as thresholds, joints or gutters. The use of towing vehicles and muscle power is not needed with FORMIC25. Initial industrial trials with the current prototype are already promising and the founding duo is optimistic about the future: "In early 2023, we aim to have the notarized spin-off, have our prototype ready for the market, and start the production."
"I enjoy working on the vehicles and seeing things grow. My goal has always been to set up my own business with a good hardware solution that brings something to others."
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