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  • Writer's pictureJeff Johnson

Reinvent Material Handling with Mechatronics

The XTS intelligent transport system’s NCT extension supplies wireless power and communication to end effectors on movers. This highly flexible multi-robot system replaces inflexible traditional equipment in intralogistics and takes fulfillment capabilities down to lot-size-1.

Keep customers happy. Increase revenue. Whether you’re a large CPG manufacturer or a startup e-comm outfit, more than likely you’re looking for new ways to meet both goals through more powerful automation technologies. The initial order shipment – faster picking, higher accuracy, less packaging waste, etc. – has always been a focus for optimization. Now companies are also implementing automatic replenishment for commodities like filters, printer cartridges and pantry items as well as pharmaceuticals, meal kits, etc., through subscriptions, Dash buttons, smart sensors and predictive algorithms.

And what does this mean for fulfillment operations? More microfulfillment, down to lot-size-1 orders, more frequently. The existing strain on distribution center and warehouse real estate means any technology additions need to operate without adding square footage. This often is not the case for traditional robotics systems, which are rigid and require barriers or reduced speeds to work as cobots.

Beckhoff XTS NCT system with XPlanar flying motion
The latest XTS extension, No Cable Technology (NCT), adds another powerful tool for increased flexibility and material handling capabilities to the Beckhoff mechatronics portfolio.

Revolutionary mechatronics solutions, such as the linear transport system XTS and XPlanar “flying motion” system from Beckhoff, have offered new options for dynamic material handling. These are not mere “conveyor replacements.” Both simplify designs of entire machines, eliminate mechanical components, and can even take over common robot functions, reducing footprint requirements for automated equipment. And they can work in concert for even greater flexibility and lot-size-1 processing.

The XTS offers a modular linear track design with few parts: a controller, motor modules, several track options depending on payload and passive movers, which are propelled by electromagnetic fields. Each mover is mapped as a unique servo axis in software, increasing traceability for both the mover and the products it carries.

While XTS has already been proven in a large number of machines globally, the technology continues to evolve to better fit the demands of today’s intralogistics equipment. One such advance is No Cable Technology (NCT), a major extension of XTS. NCT provides contactless power supply and synchronous real-time data communication directly to XTS movers. This evolution supports the use of wide-ranging end effectors without sacrificing the XTS solution’s high dynamics and flexibility. This enables individual movers to serve as mobile handling and processing stations. Essentially, NCT turns the intelligent transport system into a powerful, highly flexible multi-robot system.

A special motor module as well as electronics that mount on the movers are fully compatible with existing XTS components and work within the established footprint. As such, NCT can support new designs and augment existing XTS applications without expanding footprint. Implementing NCT requires no further supply lines or software supplements in TwinCAT. Ample computing power in Beckhoff control hardware running TwinCAT automation software enables easy connection of all end devices, including sensors and actuators. The data communication is real-time capable and can synchronize system-wide events with microsecond-level accuracy via the EtherCAT industrial Ethernet protocol.

The impressive capabilities of XTS with NCT empower engineers to design new breakthrough solutions, especially for complex product and material handling in highly automated facilities:

  • NCT allows for numerous motion sequences to occur directly on the mover, for example, to rotate and align a product for barcode scanning or quality inspections.

  • Movers with NCT become mobile material handling systems with electromotive grippers, lifting magnets or vacuum suction cups that can pick up, transfer and deposit goods and parcels on the fly.

  • The integrated data communication of NCT enables unique identification of the mover, toolbox or product as well as monitoring of states and processes on individual movers.

  • Implementation of Track Management allows movers to transfer between multiple XTS tracks for further sorting, inspection, or transfer to end-of-line.

  • Use of various track options, including the GFX Guidance System track and XTS High-Drive setup, boosts payload ranges for handling heavier products or parcels with numerous products.

  • Real-time EtherCAT communication supports easy synchronization with other systems, from conveyors using motor-driven rollers to XPlanar or the upcoming Automation Technology for Robotics (ATRO) system from Beckhoff.

  • Movers can operate asynchronously on the track or they can perform synchronous functions such as clamping or gripping. Combined with wireless power and communication on the movers even more mechanical solutions are possible.

  • TwinCAT 3 automation software enables quick changeover of system functions.

NCT makes myriad end effectors available for use on wireless XTS movers.
NCT makes myriad end effectors available for use on wireless XTS movers.

The TwinCAT automation platform is the single powerful programming and simulation environment for all functions of the automation system. TwinCAT enables everything from mechatronics like XTS and XPlanar to the ATRO system and other motion control systems to vision, PLC, HMI, IoT and more. A single project combines all functions and can run on a single powerful automation controller. Beckhoff offers a broad range of processors to meet any application requirement. The power of the centralized control enables synchronous execution of all functions, reduces cost and energy consumption, and vastly improves the life cycle of the system.

So where would this technology benefit intralogistics equipment? Really, almost all conveying, gapping, sortation, robotics or material handling systems for induct or order fulfillment could be candidates. However, with the greater expense of XTS compared to basic equipment such as conveyors, engineers should focus on areas or combined functions of the fulfillment operation where XTS can solve particular challenges. After all, you’re gaining a flexible multi-robot functionality, not just a one-to-one replacement of a traditional conveyor.

With robotics, XTS with NCT offers an entirely different, ultra-low-profile format that combines multiple grippers with ultra-fast linear movement, which is ideal for material handling applications. The intelligent transport system also reduces the amount of dead space that standard robots need to ensure operator safety. As such, you can fit more functionality into a smaller footprint.

XTS NCT working with XPlanar
XTS with NCT is ideal for wide-ranging assembly, handling, inspection and packaging tasks in fulfillment operations.

Countless applications could benefit from the use of a multi-gripper system for building orders. In a meal kit fulfillment application, for example, various electromechanical or vacuum grippers could gather the necessary ingredients to fulfill a complete kit. The XTS movers could carry the items from predefined stations that store packages of each ingredient type or simply move cartons of prepackaged goods. Then the movers could drop them into bins or cartons on levitating XPlanar movers to fulfill a custom order with multiple meals selected by each customer, enhancing the lot-size-1 capabilities. With the traceability of both the XTS and XPlanar systems, each ingredient is tracked from the time it’s picked until the order is labeled and ready for pickup by the postal carrier.

Pharmaceuticals could provide a similarly compelling case, and here, the right end effector could also work to rotate the bottle for capping or for validation. There are countless other opportunities in today’s e-commerce landscape. And they will continue to grow. XTS with its powerful NCT extension will keep evolving to meet new challenges and provide new opportunities to innovate in intralogistics.

Not sure how to start applying the latest advances in mechatronics in your intralogistics operation? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Jeff Johnson of Beckhoff Automation

Jeff Johnson is the Mechatronics Product Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.


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