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N-9 - autonomous empty container handler
Current ongoing growth in globalization and the amount of shipped goods is increasing and the turn over time has to be faster than ever. This puts a lot of pressure on shipping companies and the harbor workers, especially as they are working almost 24/7 to handle the massive influx of containers.
This business it is not only about handling full containers; there is also a "hidden" business - empty container handling. The storage of empty container handling is not well paid and at the same time highly dangerous. Current solutions are built to be operated by people but not with the human factor of pressure and stress in mind. Empty container handling companies are restricted by safety regulations and current vehicle solutions. Therefore we posed the question: How can we make empty container handling more efficient and at the same time increase safety?
N-9 is an innovative autonomous empty container handler for Kalmar Global. It stacks containers from the bottom up instead of the top down. This drastically increases the container throughput and time efficiency. The built in an automated robotic twist lock system, allows for the stacking of up to 9 containers.
N-9 is a fully autonomous solution which can be controlled by a operator if necessary. With this system empty container terminals gain up to 87% more space for 40ft containers. The autonomous system behind N-9 allows it to work with more efficienciency, precision and safety.
It is part of a full service which includes a smart system. This allows a perfect symbiosis in this highly complex environment.
N-9 was a 10 week collaboration project between Kalmar Global and Umeå Institute of Design in the north of Sweden. Through the research phase, I worked in a team together with Manuel Hess who focused on the interaction of the machine control.
The project began with a diverse user and product research in Europe. It started in Sweden, went to Poland and then Germany to visit different harbors and raw material handling facilities. This was necessary to understand the environment and the product in which it is used. Different people in Germany, Poland and Sweden were interviewed about their hopes & wishes, daily life with the machines and their future vision of it. In total 3500km were travelled, 3 different countries visited, 6 different companies visited and 12 interviews conducted.
After the field research different creative methods were used to generate ideas and the interviews were analyzed. The main aspect was to create a future vision with the user in mind to help them handling containers. To incorporate in the user in the future vision a scenario was created. This scenario is built up on quotes and interviews with people who currently work in this area.
Three main topics came up during the field research: - Space and time are the most valuable resources. - In 5-10 years container handling will be fully automated. - Overlapping containers are a huge safety issue.
After the field research was conducted it was combined with desk research. After the research phase, it was a clear choice to work with empty container handling since it showed the most potential for innovation. This is where the idea came up of combining empty container handling together with locking containers.
I dove into understanding the process behind empty container handling and how the whole ecosystem of the harbor is built. It was necessary to understand the system behind empty container handling since changing one brick in the system can change the whole system. After this analysis the core idea was generated:
Stacking containers bottom up instead of top down and locking containers with each other to provide stability and safety.
Instead of stacking top down, the machine stacks from the bottom up. The elevation of the container is minimized, and the throughput can be increased due to faster stacking. To lift the containers, it hooks itself in the top row and pushes the container up with four pistons. It is also working in symbiosis with the AGV and a smart system. This increases timing drastically and allows better planning for empty container handling. For long distance traveling it can connect itself to the AGV, for short distance travelling it uses the built-in wheels. The machine is completely autonomous and can be controlled if necessary. It also still connects the containers with fully automatic twist locks which allow for higher stacking of up to nine containers. This means it can stack one more than current solutions.
To prove if the concept would bring a benefit for a empty container handler, a space calculation had to be made. A layout from an existing harbor has been taken in this case it was the HCCR in Hamburg. With N-9 it is possible to shrink the wasted space due to is flexibility and new way of stacking. this would increase a space gain for 40ft containers up to 60% if they would stack them how it is now. If locking the containers together it would be possible to stack higher and therefore reach a gain by 86%.
- Increased efficiency due to higher and faster stacking. - Increased safety due to interlocking containers and elimination overlapping containers. - A new innovative solution which is stacking bottom up instead of top down. - A new automation solution which can be translated to different areas in the harbor.
Stacking Bottom up instead of top down
This is a new stacking method which allows faster stacking because of less elevation. This increases the container throughput and puts less pressure on harbour terminals.
N-9's robotic locking mechanism helps to secure containers and at the same time minimizes the danger of overlapping containers. This also allows to stack up to 9 container due to the increased stability.
It is a complete autonomous machine and can be controlled if necessary by a operator. N-9 is always in contact with the system and this allows it to perfectly time container deliveries.
Short distance movement
For short distance travelling N-9 has built in wheels. These allow it to travel in all directions and drive to a nearby stack.
Service and Ownership
N-9 is part of a bigger system and allows the user to operate in a smarter way. This means that there are various business plans for N-9 involving different stakeholders. But with its current set up it allows small and also big empty container handling companies to increase their throughput and bring more value to this business. Maintenance can either be performed by the owner company itself, a third party or the manufacturing company.