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For Professor Kai Furmans, the word swarm intelligence has an important double meaning: On the one hand, he and his team are developing intelligent logistics modules that work cooperatively along the lines of a swarm of bees. On the other hand, he is working with a "swarm" of entrepreneurs and scientists to make the logistics modules developed at KIT the future concept for warehouses, factories, and consumers. The basis for both is optimized teamwork.

Furmans' "small-scale, autonomous, redundant intralogistics system" (KARIS) modules can combine to form a conveyor belt, form a production line, and perform individual picking tasks. The special feature is that the modules themselves decide on how to reach a destination: Which module transports which goods where? Which modules need to combine to get larger goods to their destination? "At its core, the self-organization of KARIS modules enables a decentralized and very flexible flow of materials, for example in logistics centers or adaptable production factories," Furmans says. For this to work, the individual modules must communicate with each other without a central unit specifying the coordinates for routes and geometries for clusters, explains the industry-experienced logistics expert: "Practically like a team without a boss that constantly faces new challenges and functions perfectly.

"Innovation means asking the right question at the right time."

Professor Kai Furmans


The KARIS modules, which are about one cubic meter in size, stand in stark contrast to the rigid systems that dominate logistics and production today. Hall-high racks and fixed goods-dependent production systems are the industry standard, but they do not meet the demands of dynamics: "They cannot adequately support companies that produce small quantities with a simultaneously high variety of products and have to deliver X variants of packaging and inserts to a large number of recipients. In combination with existing systems, KARIS can close this gap," says Wolfgang Bay, member of the Executive Board of SICK AG. The sensor technology company has 5,600 employees and focuses intensively on research and development, also in cooperation with KIT, says Bay: "Projects like KARIS create innovations and thus the basis for competitive products.

In addition to SICK and KIT, eleven other well-known companies and two universities are involved in the pre-competitive project. Awarded as one of the "365 Landmarks in the Land of Ideas Germany", KARIS is to take the step into real production or logistics environments in 2015.



Wolfgang Bay is a member of the Executive Board of SICK AG, responsible for research and development and head of the central R&D department. SICK AG manufactures sensor technology for a wide range of applications, is also a supplier to the logistics and distribution industry, and runs its own logistics center in Waldkirch, Germany. SICK and KIT have been working together intensively since 2007.

KIT: Are autonomous logistics elements like KARIS the future in the warehouse?

Wolfgang Bay: I can answer that in two ways. On the one hand, rigid systems can no longer fully meet today's production and logistics requirements and cannot be automated any further. Autonomous, modular and small-scale solutions like KARIS will become more important the more complex and varied the material flow is. On the other hand, they cannot replace high-performance systems, but complement them.


KIT: How important are innovations for a medium-sized company like SICK?

Wolfgang Bay: The development of innovative products is essential, since it offers the only chance to remain competitive in the long term. We have to offer our customers effective and timely solutions and therefore invest nine to ten percent of our sales in research and development.


What share do research institutions like KIT have in this development?

Wolfgang Bay: As a medium-sized company, we also carry out application-oriented basic development in addition to product development. However, we need strategic support, among others from KIT. Research institutions deal with the solutions for the problems in three to five years. This helps us to think outside the box, away from day-to-day business and the established paths. With the right partners and trusting cooperation, like with Professor Furmans and his team, valuable product ideas then emerge and are subsequently developed to market-ready products.


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Pictures: KIT


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