Einride’s autonomous vehicles are coming to GE Appliances

If you’re lucky enough to visit GE Appliance’s famous Appliance Park in Louisville, you might also be lucky enough to see the beginnings of a logistics revolution. Instead of semi-trailers, a small fleet of modules from Einride, a Swedish freight technology company, hauls quantities of material by trailer between the campus’ five manufacturing and assembly facilities. They are aerodynamic and futuristic without forgetting all electric and autonomous. No operator is behind the wheel – in fact, there is no steering wheel. You can click here to watch a YouTube video of the pods in action.

The pods are one of two projects GE Appliance, a Haier company, is doing with Einride. In the other, the device maker is using all-electric Einride drayage trucks in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, aiming to save 970 tons of CO2 emissions in the first year. Electric vehicles are not autonomous. The deployments are part of a $1 billion investment commitment by GEA in its US manufacturing and distribution operations.

According to Harry Chase, director of advanced materials, the projects are just a small segment of innovation initiatives at GE Appliances – there are more than 100 currently underway. Chase’s job is to introduce new technology to streamline operations, reduce GE Appliance’s carbon footprint and minimize supply chain disruptions. “I observe shipping from supplier to line-side delivery, including the flow of materials inside factories,” he says.

Among the projects his team has started is deploying IoT sensors throughout the supply chain to get better data on the movement of goods from these suppliers to the line. For example, Bluetooth GPS sensors track the movement of materials from Mexico to the United States, where shipments are then picked up by the Four Kites platform used by GEA. Other sensors track maritime shipments, with plans to add rail and inland transport in the future. These do not include a variety of robotics, automation and data collection projects inside factories and warehouses. “We are challenged to improve our supply chain as a whole,” he says. “So my team has a budget to test and experiment with different technologies that could make us better and more interconnected and closer to the customer.” They may not always have a return on investment, “but we believe that in the long run they will give us a competitive advantage. This is our philosophy.

Although Chase has been working inside facilities for years, it has only been in the last 7-8 years that reliable technology has become available outside the four walls. Enter both projects with Einride. The European freight technology company may not be a household name in the United States, where several national companies are working on self-driving and electric trucks. What convinced Chase about Einride’s technology was the company’s approach to vehicle design. “A lot of the vendors we looked at take existing tractor-trailers and make them self-driving or electric,” says Chase. “Einride asked: what would we do if we started from scratch and made it modular? As an example, the autonomous vehicle does not require an operator in the cabin, so there was no need to build a traditional cabin. “Since everything is self-contained, you just need the storage area and the power to drive the pod,” Chase explains. “The whole thought process is innovative.”

Electric vehicles require drivers, and drivers are always the variable when it comes to energy savings. The software behind electric trucks tracks CO2 savings and has logic that advises the driver on how to operate the vehicle based on the location of charging stations.

Of the two projects, electric vehicles are easier to understand. They are part of GEA’s sustainability strategy. There are 6 vehicles to start, and they will be deployed to Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee for milk runs of up to 90 miles round trip. These include drayage from the port to a logistics center in Georgia and from the logistics center to a manufacturing plant; and from logistics centers to factories in Kentucky and Tennessee. GEA builds the infrastructure to charge the vehicles. “If we only throw 10,000 pounds on a truck, we can run all day and reload at night,” says Chase. They will deploy an opportunity load if performing heavier loads of up to 40,000 lbs.

In addition to sustainability goals, the trucks will reduce maintenance costs because electric vehicles have fewer moving parts. This is important in some areas where trained diesel mechanics are scarce.

The autonomous vehicle project is more complex. “We’ve been looking for years to find ways to more efficiently move materials, like injection-molded agitators, between the 5 support and manufacturing plants on campus,” says Chase. “We have looked at a number of options, including outside tugs, but they are difficult to unload and weather conditions can create problems. The pods, on the other hand, can be loaded and unloaded at the dock with a forklift, like a traditional trailer.

The modules navigate using a combination of GPS and LIDAR. GPS tracks location, while four 3D LIDAR sensors map the operating environment. Linked together, the system knows its position and also understands obstacles and landmarks on routes.

After a successful pilot project using forklifts for loading and unloading, GEA returned to Einride with a list of changes, such as adapting equipment for US docks versus European docks. For example, the standard ICC bar blocks part of the LIDAR. The aim is to have the vehicles ready for operation in the 3rd or 4th quarter of 2022.

For starters, they won’t be completely self-sufficient. GEA uses a remote driving station with an operator who can monitor vehicles. For example, if there is an obstacle in the road, the remote pilot can decide to take over the controls or let the vehicle continue to navigate autonomously. To begin with, a driver will monitor 3 vehicles with a goal of having one driver monitoring up to 9 vehicles. “Right now we’re about 60% autonomous and 40% monitored, and our goal is to reach 95% complete automation,” says Chase.

Self-driving trucks are just one part of a larger set of material flows on campus. Ultimately, GEA wants to automate the entire end-to-end process, starting with a robot responsible for loading finished parts onto a conveyor that will be transported to a shipping dock by an autonomous mobile robot. When shipping, the carrier will be transferred to a conveyor that will dock with a conveyor inside the basket for automatic loading and unloading. When the pod arrives at a manufacturing plant, the supports will be automatically unloaded onto a conveyor upon receipt, fed onto an autonomous mobile robot, and then automatically delivered to the assembly line on a just-in-time basis.

“We want to have a seamless, synchronized material flow where no one is touching it,” says Chase. This is proving more difficult to achieve, at least for now. “Our biggest challenge is getting robots to talk to robots, and that’s been interesting,” says Chase.

Chase believes projects like these are critical to GEA’s future success. “As we invest in automation, we continue to grow our workforce,” he says. “So we need to look at how we support the worker by eliminating messy, boring and difficult tasks while building the infrastructure that will allow us to be flexible and get closer to the customer.”

And, by working with innovative companies, “we can influence how this technology evolves in the future.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock Bob Trebilcock, Managing Editor, has covered material handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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