INTRODUCING ALPHABOT®

Alert Innovation is proud to introduce the Alphabot® Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) and Automated Each-Picking System (AEPS), the most capital-efficient and broadly scalable design of each of these solutions ever developed. At the heart of Alphabot technology is a mobile robot unique in its ability to operate in all three dimensions within a multilevel storage structure. A fleet of these robots operates within a given system under control of a single Master Control System (MCS).

In an Alphabot ASRS, the bots are the only moving part—there are no lifts, conveyors, or any other material-handling mechanism—hence the capital-efficiency.  The addition of a highly innovative picking workstation creates the world’s most advanced “goods-to-picker” each-picking technology in which the bots themselves flow product and order containers through these workstations, where pickers transfer eaches from product containers to order containers. Since the robots move vertically, workstations can be arrayed at multiple vertical elevations, enabling unprecedented space efficiency in high-throughput systems.

Alphabot technology makes possible a new-type of supermarket featuring automated-service rather than self-service, which we believe will become the next paradigm in food retailing. Our name for this type of supermarket is Novastore

 

ROBOTS (Bots) 

Like a conventional shuttle robot, Alphabot robots operate within a storage structure, running linearly within storage lanes on rails that are also the beams supporting stored containers (totes) of products to be picked. Also like shuttle robots, Alphabot robots transfer totes between their payload bays and storage locations. Unlike a shuttle robot but like many other mobile robots, an Alphabot robot can travel in x/y horizontal dimensions on a planar surface such as a floor or deck. However, unlike any other robot on the planet, an Alphabot can also move itself vertically in the z-dimension to any elevation within the structure and then transition back to moving horizontally at that elevation. It is a true “transformer” robot: at any vertical elevation, the robot can transition between being a mobile robot and a lift, or vice versa. In comparison to conventional shuttle-based ASRS and AEPS solutions, then, the Alphabot performs all of the transfer and transport functions of not only the shuttle robots, but also the lifts and conveyors, and the picking workstation mechanisms as well. It is this capability which enables Alphabot to be so capital efficient and so broadly scalable from very low-volume to very high-volume systems.

Alphabot robots have their own vertical-drive mechanism which engages with vertical tracks, or "towers" in the structure to move the robot from one elevation to another, and a wheel-retraction/extension mechanism that enables it to transition between vertical and horizontal modes at any point and travel horizontally at any storage or workstation level. 

The robot transfers totes between its payload bay and storage-rack locations using a very simple mechanism that has a single drive motor, without any telescoping mechanisms or additional actuators typically found on other robots (like shuttle robots). This design is both less expensive and more robustly reliable than those competitive designs.

One other noteworthy feature of the Alphabot robot is its energy-storage subsystem that uses supercapacitors instead of chemical batteries. Supercaps charge and discharge far more quickly than batteries, have much longer useful lives (literally millions of charge cycles), and suffer no loss of storage capacity in low temperatures (compared to significant loss in chemical batteries). The reduced power density of supercaps compared to chemical batteries doesn’t penalize Alphabot because bots recharge while they climb and descend towers, which they must do on every trip. Since not very much energy needs to be stored, relatively few supercaps are needed. Alphabots are thus capable of operating at 100% duty cycle during peak demand periods, and there is no expense for battery replacement, so total cost of ownership is significantly lower than with chemical batteries.

 

STRUCTURE

 Alert Innovation structure at the Walmart in Salem, New Hampshire

There are four forms of structure within which the bots operate within an each-picking system: (1) storage modules that hold totes in storage, within which the bots move linearly and at relatively high velocity, (2) tower modules containing vertical tracks with which the bots engage to move vertically, (3) decks on which bots move two-dimensionally to access aisles and workstations, and (4) picking workstation modules in which bots present totes to pickers who transfer eaches from product totes to order totes. Aisle and tower modules are assembled quickly and precisely at ground level through the use of assembly fixtures, and are then raised into place, stacking one on top of another. The entire structure is thus erected very quickly and with high dimensional precision.

 

 

WORKSTATION

The picking workstation takes advantage of the robot’s vertical capability by having it enter the workstation from a lower deck, ascend into transfer position in front of the picker, and then exit to an upper deck. This design allows for a high rate of flow of robots and totes through the workstation, as well as nearly ideal ergonomics for the picker. Ultimately, this enables the system to achieve sustained pick rates of 800 or more picks per hour. To ensure accuracy, the workstation controller uses an overhead projector to illuminate both the pick and put locations (pick-to-light and put-to-light), and sensors detect the location of the picker’s hand when making a pick or a put. Since robots are instructed to move only after the picker’s hand clears a tote, the picker effectively controls the flow of robots with the motion of his/her hands, usually without even being aware of it.

 

MASTER CONTROL SYSTEM

The most complex part of the Alphabot system is the Master Control System (MCS) software. To accelerate our development and reduce technical risk, Alert Innovation has licensed from Romaric Corporation the source code for the Romaric Automation Control Engine (RACE TM). RACE is a field-proven software system used primarily to control automated semiconductor factories, and by licensing the source code we have been able to adapt it to create the MCS for our Alphabot technology. MCS is responsible for processing all orders, scheduling all bot tasks, managing all bot moves to optimize flow and throughput while preventing collisions between bots, and interfacing to the world outside of the system.