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Unilever performs with AGVs from ek robotics in the cosmetics industry

Without having to significantly interrupt ongoing production, AGV market leader ek robotics set up an automated guided vehicle (AGV) system for production supply and disposal for a Unilever Bodycare plant near Hamburg.

Groundbreaking safety technology, optimal use of space and customized software solutions guarantee the customer maximum cleanliness, reliable transport of goods without damage, increased productivity and site security with manageable investments. An automated transport system in Buxtehude - pointing the way forward for Unilever throughout Europe.

Since the beginning of January 2014, the internal transport of pallets for supply and disposal of the production at the Unilever plant has been running via an automated guided vehicle system from ek robotics. This does not require any manual transports: particularly important in the Bodycare area to minimize the introduction of dirt into the production area. Automation pays off - especially when a plant like the one in Buxtehude produces forklift transports in round-the-clock operation. It also completely eliminates damage caused by forklifts. For a long time, the only obstacle to automation was the limited space available for all the necessary installations and travel paths.


Implementation through optimized travel path design ek robotics - in cooperation with the system integrator BSS from Solingen for all conveyor components - developed a concept for the least possible interference with production together with optimal travel paths and precisely fitting software solutions. The engineering team led by experienced project manager Thorsten Pietschmann faced three main challenges: There is little space for transfer stations in the station areas, the transport vehicles have to pass through extremely narrow areas in driveways with single-lane traffic routing, and they have to do so at constantly high transport capacities. The development team relied on a creative solution: rebuilds or shifts on the production lines allow a large circular driving course to be set up to serve all lines. The transfer points are arranged around the driving course. This makes them equally accessible for deliveries and goods removal. With this layout, the available space can now be optimally utilized and a partially two-lane main travel path is gained in the middle. The AGV takes over completely the internal transport of pallets for supply and disposal of the production.

All transport orders are transmitted to the OS 700 control system by the central material flow control system from BSS. At each line, the correct replenishment is reliably ordered by means of barcode scanners - efficient work for the entire networked production is thus ensured.


The vehicle fleet: universally deployable, self-loading and safe
The vehicle fleet consists of 13 automated SMART MOVE series industrial trucks with flexible laser navigation and intelligent automatic recharging. Depending on the workload, the vehicles drive themselves to recharge during quieter periods. The energy system with charging plates on each vehicle is thus also optimally designed for 24-hour operation with high throughput. The SMART MOVE transport robots are also extremely maneuverable and universally applicable. They can pick up pallets at floor level, from conveyor systems or even from 2.8 m high racks. Highly sensitive SICK S300 personal protection laser scanners at the front and rear also guarantee the highest standards in terms of safety.




Switchover to automated operation without production downtime and with only two-week test phase
Although everything went smoothly on the development side, the floor had to be partially refurbished shortly before the start of productive shipments. Despite this delay, operations in Buxtehude were able to start on schedule at the beginning of the year with new technology. "The test phase was extremely short at two weeks," explains Thorsten Pietschmann. "Nevertheless, after commissioning, manual stackers did not have to be used even once." For the customer Unilever, this meant that production could continue completely.  Adjustments and optimization of the entire plant were then carried out during ongoing operation.


An investment with future
As always with ek robotics, the project-specific program source code was also supplied in this case. This allows the customer to expand the system even after five or 15 years. Unilever has taken advantage of this and expanded the fleet by three additional vehicles to 13 AGVs. Whether new vehicle types or control versions are implemented, for example, depends entirely on the future demand situation. "Who knows for sure today what will be needed in five years: Vehicles with roller conveyors, flat carrier vehicles with lift tables or something completely different," says Ronald Kretschmer, CSO at ek robotics. "Thanks to our way of working, however, the customer is guaranteed future-proof and cost-saving expansions." This is all the more important, as the expectations placed in automation are usually confirmed within a short time and further production parts are to be included in the AGV. This is also the case here: the system has already been expanded to include an innovative station for automated waste disposal. Expansion to include additional vehicles is in the works. Throughout the Group, Unilever's Buxtehude plant is regarded as a reference for other production plants due to its exemplary technical equipment.




In 2023, ek robotics celebrates 60 years of AGV expertise. Take a look at the development of the company, the products and the variety of solutions for automation technologies!