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  • Writer's pictureDoug Schuchart

Revolutionize AS/RS Performance and Flexibility with New Automation Technology

Today’s e-commerce market demands that Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems not just keep up but offer real competitive advantages

Automated Storage and Retrieval System (AS/RS)
(© Swisslog)

The exponential growth of e-commerce following the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened retailers’ focus on automation. In 2019 e-commerce accounted for 15.8% of all U.S. retail sales and jumped over 4 percentage points in 2020 to 19.6%. This is the largest year-over-year increase for U.S. digital commerce in retail sales ever recorded by a considerable margin since even a two-percentage point gain had not previously been achieved.

The pandemic created new consumer buying habits, setting a new trajectory for digital penetration of retail sales in the next five years. The rapid increase in e-commerce is putting new pressures on the labor market. This, along with consumer expectations for fast delivery and the importance of order accuracy, has significantly increased the use and need of automated equipment in fulfillment operations.

The Automated Storage and Retrieval System (AS/RS) has become a fundamental piece of automated equipment in modern fulfillment centers. Once only attainable by larger-scale operations, new advances now make a wide range of smaller systems available at significantly lower cost. Microfulfillment has also driven smaller and more flexible AS/RS options to the market. Now, scalable AS/RS solutions are available for most any size fulfillment operation, making the AS/RS a central investment in modern operations of all sizes.

Goods to operator and goods to robot (G2O/G2R) pick stations
G2O/G2R pick stations are common elements in AS/RS solutions, as in this Honeywell Intelligrated system.

AS/RS systems maximize warehouse and distribution center efficiency by tightly integrating all areas of intralogistics and saturating facilities with highly automated equipment. Common elements found in an AS/RS can include:

  • Shuttle systems

  • Vertical and horizontal carousels

  • Cube-based storage

  • Unit and mini load systems

  • Vertical lift modules (VLM) and indexing conveyors (VIC)

  • Goods to operator and goods to robot (GTO/GTR) pick stations

As a leading supplier of control technology in material handling and intralogistics, Beckhoff offers a broad range of technologies to help automated equipment suppliers gain a competitive advantage. These best-in-class control solutions perfectly fit the needs of AS/RS applications and are today controlling a wide range of systems from some of the largest material handling equipment suppliers in the world. The Beckhoff-equipped systems are deployed in fulfillment operations of large, mid-size and small companies in markets including retail, automotive, grocery, medical and others.

Optimized industrial networking for AS/RS applications

EtherCAT, an open, real-time and deterministic Ethernet fieldbus communication protocol developed by Beckhoff, is the backbone of Beckhoff control systems. The EtherCAT Technology Group (ETG), an independent organization that manages the EtherCAT technology with all member companies, is the largest Ethernet and fieldbus organization in the world. Adoption in material handling and intralogistics is particularly high in part due to its almost unlimited capability to control numerous devices. One EtherCAT network can accommodate more than 65,000 devices on a single linear network, such as long conveying and sortation systems. It also offers the ability to add many branches with zero impact on the network performance. You can go big and go long without any worry about system communication limitations.

Being the fastest fieldbus in the world, EtherCAT also has considerable benefits for AS/RS motion control requirements. Its openness enables unrestricted communication with all other open protocols to support any brownfield or greenfield installation such as EtherNet/IP, PROFINET, DeviceNet and PROFIBUS, just to name a few. And EtherCAT offers further significant benefits in the areas of network security, digitization (IoT) and machine safety.

Beckhoff EP7402 MDR controller
Beckhoff offers an feature-rich MDR controller, the EP7402, that offers benefits in AS/RS applications.

Regardless of the type of AS/RS, Beckhoff offers a large portfolio of control technology including a wide performance range of compact controllers, a broad offering of compact plug-and-play I/O solutions for any signal type, and a comprehensive collection of compact, low-voltage drive technology ideal for mobile applications. Specifically for the motion control requirements of unit load and mini-load shuttles, customers can choose from compact drives that co-mingle with standard I/O signals on a traditional local or remote rack in IP20, and IP65/67-rated machine-mounted drives, as well as integrated motor drives. Drive technology is offered for servo, stepper, BLDC, as well as AC and DC motors. Beckhoff’s powerful TwinCAT automation software platform supports simple configuration of motion axes as well as CNC functions required for gantry-style unit load storage systems. This broad offering in software and hardware provides optimal flexibility in the design of equipment.

Powerful machine controls for modern intralogistics systems

Beckhoff machine controllers with motherboards developed and produced in-house extend hardware lifecycle and offer on-board removable storage media. Local databases running alongside the PLC on the same device support local analytics of historical and real-time data with the help of the TwinCAT real-time integrated scope tools and analytics functions. This, along with the extensive diagnostics capabilities of EtherCAT, enables monitoring of equipment for predictive maintenance, ensuring the highest uptime in production and improved asset reliability. Further, the TwinCAT platform enables remote support to machine controllers with options that provide optimal customer security protection, which means end users are not required to provide VPN access to OEMs in order to remotely support their equipment.

Beckhoff combines many additional functions that can be integral to an AS/RS into one powerful machine controller, including vision, robotics, speech, HMI and machine learning, which itself can be a powerful tool for optimizing the shuttle paths of an AS/RS, for example. And for related material handling systems, such as GTO/GTR technologies, we offer innovative solutions, including Flying Motion with XPlanar and a motor-driven roller (MDR) controller that’s manufacturer agnostic. With this comprehensive suite of solutions that boost your automation from the warehouse floor to the cloud, we look forward to helping you gain a competitive advantage with your AS/RS system.

Want to learn more about increasing AS/RS flexibility and performance with New Automation Technology? Download our exclusive brochure and contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer!


Doug Schuchart is the Material Handling & Intralogistics Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.


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