top of page
  • Writer's pictureDoug Schuchart

Beckhoff Puts Mobile Robot Success on Autopilot

As the market for AGVs and AMRs accelerates, the automation technologies under the hood must be powerful, compact and flexible to deliver the necessary results

An autonomous mobile robot (AMR) driving in a factory

Even before the pandemic, all kinds of companies were taking a close look at industrial robots – and with good reason. Robots offer new opportunities to address the skills gap in the workforce and improve the productivity and quality of their operations. Robots also eliminate repetitive, menial and difficult tasks that employees don’t want to do on a daily basis or that could cause injury, such as heavy lifting. Removing these tasks frees up staff for value-add functions that are more fulfilling to the employee, which reduces staffing turnover.

Fast forward a few years and staffing shortages that began during the pandemic have persisted, creating a surge of interest in robots for fulfillment and manufacturing environments. And as end users strive to have nimble responses to changing business and consumer demands, flexibility requirements are also driving new industrial equipment concepts. End users feel the need to change the configuration of their operations quickly and easily.

The combination of these interests established a new trend in fulfillment operations and manufacturing facilities: use of mobile robots, specifically autonomous mobile robots. Fortune Business Insights forecasted a CAGR of 23.7% for autonomous mobile robots from 2021 through 2028, ultimately reaching $8.7 billion globally. With the dramatic increase in e-commerce sales, the warehouse and distribution center industry segment is expected to capture the highest growth in mobile robots followed by manufacturing.

But in many cases, the technologies under the hood can limit the capabilities of mobile robots. To be more specific, control platforms for autonomous mobile robots consist of PLCs, motion control, navigation systems, safety systems and battery systems. And all of these must fit into the tight enclosures that come with the territory.

An AGV in a warehouse
The fully integrated automation platform from Beckhoff combines PLC, motion control and more with the ability to add navigation and other systems in a standard environment.

In these areas, Beckhoff offers the most compact control systems for mobile robots, combining the control of all functions into a single compact machine controller. Navigation, which for many years has been handled by a completely separate black box can now be executed in the standard Beckhoff controller, even running on a separate processor core if desired.

Integrated, consolidated: A powerful control platform for AGVs and AMRs

Beckhoff offers compact, high-performance control platforms ideal for autonomous mobile robots including AGVs (automated guided vehicles), AMRs (autonomous mobile robots), as well as shuttles for many types of automated storage systems. Beckhoff began developing this integrated control system architecture as far back as the 80s by introducing new PC-based control technology to industrial applications.

More recently, other industrial controls vendors have been scrambling to catch up. Modern PLCs are essentially PC-based controllers and architected similar to Beckhoff embedded PCs, using Intel or similar processors, real-time kernels or real-time operating systems, and non-volatile memory and media storage in an industrial housing.

However, a few years of me-too development from behind cannot counter decades of leadership in the field. Beckhoff’s machine controllers are part of a fully integrated system architecture based on TwinCAT, the end-to-end automation platform from Beckhoff. Working together, these hardware and software solutions are relied upon in market-leading applications around the world as one of the highest performance machine controllers offered on the market. With update rates in the sub-millisecond and jitter of less than 5 microseconds, end users can expect a deterministic control platform providing highly accurate machine control without performance limitations.

Another big differentiator in the Beckhoff system, the TwinCAT automation platform can spread tasks across multiple cores of a multi-core processor to minimize overall CPU load. Combined, this enables the fully integrated system architecture where a single Beckhoff machine controller can execute all functions of the control system: PLC, motion control, HMI, vision, robotic kinematics, analytics, machine learning, safety, and even third-party software functions. Separate hardware for each complex function is not required, which greatly improves system life cycle and integration, supporting synchronous execution of functions. It also lowers costs and saves the most valuable commodity of all for AMRs –space in the mobile robot control cavity.

Remove all AMR obstacles with EtherCAT

Communication protocols are also critical in the control of mobile robots. EtherCAT offers significant advantages as the backbone of mobile robot communication. EtherCAT is the most open protocol on the market, enabling easy connectivity of all peripheral devices regardless of the fieldbus supported including CANopen, common for AGV drive systems. The TwinCAT automation platform is also the most open control software on the market supporting over 30 open communication protocols. This makes it easy to integrate battery systems and other peripherals as well as easy communication to local or public cloud services.

A wide range of I/O signal types as well as different form factors ensure that essentially anything can be connected to the control system with minimal effort. For example, an IP67 EtherCAT accelerometer box can be directly mounted to an AGV with a mast for measuring sway of the load. COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf) I/O modules that plug onto a custom-designed PCB board help customers eliminate the point-to-point wiring for a fleet of mobile robots. And with EtherCAT P, the combination of industrial Ethernet communication and power in one cable offers further installation efficiencies.

Boston Dynamics Stretch robot
Stretch™ from Boston Dynamics is just one example of an autonomous mobile robot that was built faster using COTS I/O and integrated safety technology from Beckhoff.

Beckhoff’s safety technology TwinSAFE, which is based on the safety communication protocol FSoE (Fail Safe over EtherCAT), offers a wide selection of both digital and analog safety I/Os. Combined with the powerful safety editor in TwinCAT, this enables implementation of all functions required for safe operation of autonomous mobile robots – including safe velocity and safe selection of person detection fields.

Standard encoders on the motors coupled with a secondary standard encoder support these safe functions. No special safety encoders are required and the system can reach a safety level of CAT 3, PLd. FSoE is based on the “black channel" communication approach and therefore supports several communication technologies, including wireless, which is important for communicating safety conditions of each mobile robot to the fleet management system.

Rounding out the portfolio related to mobile robots, Beckhoff offers a full range of low-voltage compact drive technology including integrated drive/motors. This further advances the safety functionality of the system with integrated safety, including safe functions for stop, speed, position, acceleration and rotational direction.

Using automation software to fine tune AMRs in intralogistics

Flexibility and features are the name of the game with mobile robots, so the underlying technology should have a similar focus. As such, TwinCAT features, including machine learning and analytics, can help optimize AGVs and AMRs. TwinCAT’s built-in scope tool enables easy analysis of all points of the system, including vision, for easy tuning and diagnostics. EtherCAT diagnostics with a readily available API for the HMI provides a clear view of the status of every device in the system. This means users can quickly drill down in the HMI to the variables of the EtherCAT devices and even see a scope trace in real-time.

JBT automated guided vehicle (AGV)
PC-based control delivers key advantages for AGV solutions from JBT.

Beckhoff also offers freedom in operating system selection. A more traditional approach with Windows is supported, or customers can use the same hardware and instead choose a non-Windows, Unix-like OS – TwinCAT/BSD. Other operating systems are also supported with the use of the TwinCAT/BSD Hypervisor. This is a game changer because some navigation software tools are offered only for execution in Linux for instance. A single mobile robot controller from Beckhoff can support this architecture with the navigation running in a VM (virtual machine) via the hypervisor in Linux while the PLC, motion control, safety and vision run in the host TwinCAT/BSD OS. A further VM could also support Windows for other user functions, again in a single powerful mobile robot controller.

Another major trend that requires flexibility is industrial mobile robots (IMRs). Essentially, this means a mobile robot with an articulated robot arm that can perform pick or palletizing functions. Through the openness of TwinCAT and EtherCAT, the Beckhoff platform can support nearly any third-party robot. And, Beckhoff recently announced a modular robot system, ATRO. This unique, emerging technology increases customization in these and other applications.

ATRO’s link modules and 48V DC motor modules are interchangeable, enabling the robot system to convert from a 4- or 5-axis to a 6- or even 7-axis arm in a matter of minutes. The modularity also enables serviceability of individual modules of the robot. Communication, air and electrical power are all passed through the center core of the robot system, so it has complete freedom of motion for endless rotation of each axis.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of ATRO is that it is part of the fully integrated control architecture of TwinCAT. Hence, no separate robot controller is required but instead the mobile robot controller from Beckhoff also handles the synchronous execution of the ATRO kinematics. ATRO will create new possibilities for mobile robots with added robot arms enabling the kind of flexibility desired by many retail and parcel end users.

As autonomous mobile robots take center stage in modern warehouse and distribution centers, providers of this emerging technology have proliferated. Companies in this crowded space need ways to be more competitive by offering smaller, more agile mobile robots that combine long life cycles with easy supportability. Here, Beckhoff technology is up to the challenge with compact, high performance, and safe mobile robot controls. This provides the competitive advantage that ensures you’ll stay at the forefront of this fast-paced market.

Ready to learn how to design a state-of-the-art control platform for your mobile robot offerings? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Doug Schuchart of Beckhoff Automation

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


bottom of page