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Family Aid 2020
   Vol. 22 No. 34
Thursday September 28, 2023

Conveying Cargo Upside Down

Claudio Uriarte, Hendrik Thamer & Ivan Kuznetsov

     When I came out of college, I wanted to learn how to fly, but I was too scared to give it a try. I had just started working while still studying and the burden was just too heavy. One of my colleagues, a young lady with many passions and strong determination, was more courageous, left the company and took a new job at the airport, where she could have easy access to aircraft and lessons. In time we lost contact, but many years later, on leaving Turin for a trip to Germany, I saw that she was actually flying the Embraer that was supposed to take me to Frankfurt. Congratulations, captain!
     So many years ago, so many memories… Missing the airborne choice left me a sense of regret, together with the notion that life continues to flow nonetheless and, side by side with your achievements, there is a long series of missed opportunities, and people who could have been more important for you. Well, let me leave it at that… Let us read on, and we shall see that my ex-colleague is not the only pilot in this story.
     At times memories come back to mind and they seem to be there just to haunt you. In my case many have to do with flying and learning experiences, but fortunately they are not always tinted with regret. Let me continue this story with something sweeter, where no sense of regret can be found: originally published by Flying as a series of stories, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was an extraordinary reading for the young man I was in the ’70’s. The quintessential lesson from the beautifully crafted tale teaches you to deal with your own uniqueness in a group of peers, who are not always inclined to accept your line. It shows you how to set yourself apart from the rest and how to integrate in a flock that is supposed to fly both methodically and originally in order to reach higher and higher results. It is inspiring and guiding in particular if you feel you are a young man who is slightly different from the rest. It helped me build my place in the society where I was supposed to live, which, if I have to use an understatement, did not meet my unconditional approval at all times. It allowed me, though, to put some order in my fairly chaotic inner soul. Life in the ’70’s was surely interesting, but dealing with order and chaos was on the menu every day in Italy in those days and there was no exception for me. That was when I started my career as a freight forwarder. I had three phones ringing all the time, two telex machines and the energy of a twenty year old. The boss said: “in this job you will not get bored”. Boy, was he right... Putting order in chaos is what freight forwarders do every day, and I was desperately trying and learning how to do it. I had no idea of such connection in those years, but I can see it rather clearly today.
     Let me now get to the second part of this story and try to connect the other dots. Order and chaos are supreme concepts. Great minds have tried to discern rules amid the continuous recurrence of the chaotic irregularity that emerges from otherwise divinely systematic structures. At either end of the natural order of things, I would place the neat and quintessential pattern of the honeycomb constructed by the bees and the periodical and erratic formation of the dunes in the desert. The former so intrinsically useful and the latter so insignificantly casual, yet both make sense.
     For centuries scientists and philosophers has discussed and distilled the principles governing our lives, observed studied and described flocks of birds and schools of fish naturally producing some of the most amazing mathematics that natures generates. Nobody came closer to understanding the principles behind these expressions than a scientist that has been perhaps insufficiently recognized for his principal contribution to science: Benoit Mandelbrot. The Mandelbrot Set is rather well known, but in my view it is worth a yet to come Nobel Prize. His extremely beautiful mathematical figure contains supreme order and chaos, both progressing hand in hand. I could imagine many of us working in logistics would be delighted to use these stylish lines to contain and describe their daily work. Will it ever happen? Our research centers are not at that point yet, but it is not impossible to compare and use these concepts in our daily business, even though the meaning of Logistics in mathematics as opposed to our understanding of it are coincidental, and the connection with Mandelbrot’s work is yet to be fully developed. So the use of fractals in our daily routines may be a slow train coming, but there is another train that in my view this one has arrived already, and its promising station will be the third part of this story.
     Let us go back to nature and observe one of its greatest marvels: bees’ honeycomb. In 1999 Thomas C. Hales provided evidence to the conjecture that the hexagonal pattern of the honeycomb is the best way to divide a surface in equal cells with the least total perimeter. We all know the innate efficiency of honey bees and their beehive is a miracle of architecture. One could legitimately ask, what have bees to do with logistics, considering we do not even have linguistic vicinity here.
     It is precisely at this point of the journey that I was connected to Ivan Kuznetsov of cellumation. When I got in touch with him, and he kindly agreed to devote some of his precious time to an interview and provide the necessary material, the connection between the supreme efficiency of honeybees and his notable work was immediately visible to me, as shown in the following picture from cellumation’s website as compared to a close-up picture of the honeycomb.

cellumation honeycomb

The Sweetest Fruit Of The Honeycomb

     Ivan Kuznetsov is co-founder and head of air cargo at cellumation. Ivan joined the cellumation team early through his work at the BIBA – Institute of the University of Bremen. After more than 10 years’ experience in Industrial Engineering and a Master of Science at the University of Bremen, Ivan led the development of the celluveyor’s control system in the early stages of the cellumation project. Passionate pilot and flight instructor, Ivan was happy to take charge of the newly formed Air Cargo business unit at the beginning of 2023. I said there was another pilot in this story… And we are to understand we also have other common interests. Kuznetsov’s comment to my first draft was: “thank you for the article. Especially mentioning of the Jonathan Livingston, one of my all-time favorite characters ?”

Ivan Kuznetsov

     My impression is that Mr. Kuznetsov and his colleagues have conjured up a powerful logistics device that can significantly improve the throughput of our companies, in particular in air cargo, where somewhat lighter goods are regularly handled. This is how cellumation itself puts it. “Three orange wheels, hexagonal cells, artistically decorated camera racks: the celluveyor finds a place in the logistics centers and production facilities around the world. This truly modular and unique technology is characterized by the perfect interaction of a robust hardware, an attentive vision system and magic software for high performance in a compact space.”
     “Sortation and orientation in the smallest space” is the motto: the system can actually direct and sort an endless stream of packages according to their destination. In their combined research and implementation errand to alleviate some of the most time consuming phases of the logistics cycle, cellumation have already achieved several milestones and they have significantly expanded their product portfolio.
     In addition to cv.DEPAL, a cv.BULKSORT and a cv.GO, further exciting challenges can be solved by cv.CROSSDOCK, that distributes objects from any number of inputs to any number of outputs and cv.PAL, that forms perfect pallet layers: this is a new pallet concept, which enables the operator to build regular layers into perfectly shaped pallets without any manual intervention.
     cv.INDUCT merges two material flows in perfect orientation and rhythm. cellumation can also report on the successful integrations of a celluveyor in Spain at Verdnatura, in Greven at DHL and also in Göttingen at Grünfuchs Logistik GmbH, all running at peak performance and without any issues for years.
     Speaking of air cargo, cellumation recently introduced the cv.SPARK – a modular e-commerce sorter adjusted to the needs of air cargo handling. It allows for quick (less than two days) deployment and extremely reliable sortation in a very limited space. If you look at the picture kindly provided by Mr. Kuznetsov, it is easy to perceive the basic principle.

Cellumation cargo sorting

     Well it looks as though we are getting ready for an unusual and exciting interview with the future! This is what Ivan says about his company: “why should a robot move on a surface when it can also move a surface when flipped over? This question was a spark of inspiration for cellumation founders Claudio Uriarte, Hendrik Thamer, and myself – right in the middle of a robot soccer game. From this original idea, the company was born in 2017. Today it has grown to over 70 employees and has set an ambitious goal: in the future, every package delivered worldwide should have touched a cellumation cell. cellumation is well on its way to achieving this goal: the celluveyors are operating in 7 countries on 2 continents. In the process, the company has welcomed DHL and SSI Schäffer as customers, among others.”

FT:   Mr. Kuznetsov, insight has inspired three distinguished gentlemen in Bremen to invest in an almost revolutionary idea that had in fact been there, before our eyes, at all times. Would you call this serendipity?
IK:   Maybe you could call this serendipity, maybe inspiration, piece of luck. This being said, the area where we were working is precisely this one. Nobody knows when the spark of the idea actually ignites, but it is also clear that it needs to find the right ground to develop. But our objectives are clear: in the future, every package delivered worldwide will have touched a celluveyor cell.

FT:   We can only wish you complete success in this errand, as we see results could be extremely favorable to air cargo in general. Can you please explain the idea in greater detail? It looks simple, it is perceptible, but the principle behind is slightly more complex…
IK:   Let me start with a pun: “We are cellumation and our robots are upside down.” Celluveyor is a set of small robots – we call them cells, approximately a size of a palm, each of which is capable of moving objects on top of it in any direction, as opposed to moving itself. The cells can be connected together, in a similar way as Lego blocks, building an omnidirectional conveying surface of any imaginable shape and size. Once it’s finished, the magic that happens on it, the movement pattern is defined by software. With a single mouse click a sorter can be reconfigured in a palletizer. And that is a celluveyor in a nutshell: a single piece of hardware, the cell and magic software.

FT:   Your company has been formed in relatively recent times, moved by an idea and now you are pursuing a commercial development. Does this kill the notion of continuous innovation, or can the two live side by side?
IK:   Our company was born out of this idea in 2017, and today we are all convinced that the power of beautiful and disruptive engineering can lead to a new and more efficient level of technological development. It energizes us when someone tells us that something cannot be done because it has always been done differently in the past. This being said we do not do it for our own pleasure, we need to see this employed by customers, as this is the ultimate proof that the idea works. So the two aspects not only can, but must live side by side.
     With this mindset, we develop and sell industry-changing products and services for the intralogistics of the future. We offer solutions for processes that could not previously be automated, allowing us to design the efficient, flexible and space-saving flow of goods of the future.

FT:   Impressive. Let me ask you a tricky question: maintenance is a common Achilles’s heel in many machines, buildings and devices. How do you see this issue from your product’s point of view?
IK:   Anyone, and we mean anyone who can hold a wrench can replace a celluveyor cell in less than five minutes. Simply undo seven screws, unplug three cables, plug in three cables, tighten the screws, and the cell automatically recognizes its new neighbors. It's child's play and allows technical staff to focus on the issues that really matter. Obviously this means you need to a certain amount of spare cells ready on site.

FT:   Basically you are telling us that cellumation is self-standing equipment that can be used with a modular approach in many areas of logistics, including and perhaps principally in air cargo, correct?
IK:   Yes, correct, I am adamant cellumation has all the necessary features that could seriously improve air cargo handling all over the world. It is just a question of embracing the new rather than sticking to a legacy without the right answer in today’s landscape.

FT:   What are the biggest challenges facing the air cargo ground handling industry today in terms of automation, in your view?
IK:   Technologically we are 40-50 years behind conventional intralogistics. While warehouse operations see a surge in using AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles), ASRS (Automated Storage and Retrieval System), sortation systems and artificial intelligence, air cargo handling is still largely a manual pen and paper process. At the same time industry struggles with low margins, lack of workforce and capacity and performance limits in some areas. So we need to find an affordable system to automate the process without excessive expenditure, having regard to existing systems in place.

cellumation airport handling

FT:   Can you further develop this point and explain how the challenges can be addressed and how your proposal meets customers’ requirements?
IK:   First, air cargo is incredibly heterogeneous, from medical supplies to live horses and heavy generator turbines. This diversity makes full automation difficult, although some emerging and especially demanding areas, such as e-commerce, will greatly benefit even from partial automation.
     Secondly, the industry is very volatile. Look at the past few years: it has been a roller coaster with pandemic, Ukraine conflict, and fluctuating air cargo volumes. This makes long-term forecasting – and thus investing in automation with a multi-year ROI challenging, especially for smaller handlers.
     Finally, the industry is quite conservative. For example, there is little reason today not to use an electronic airway bill. Yet, more than 7800 tons of paper-AWBs are still produced by the industry annually. This is why I think our offer proposes to swiftly achieve the correct ROI and can assist navigating these uncertainties even for companies that are not as yet the size of our today’s clients.
     The celluveyor solves some of the key issues in a typical freight terminal environment. It has unique modular design and ability to perform literally any movement, it allows for very compact machines, dimensioned exactly for a specific application, it is as small as it gets. Furthermore, thanks to intelligent failure detection and recovery systems, we can say that our systems are virtually zero-downtime. At last, our Logistics-as-a-Service model allows to quickly evaluate the economic benefits of the cv-based automation without any upfront investment.

FT:   Understood. What tasks can celluveyor perform in air cargo handling that can improve performance?
IK:   Our focus in air cargo now is consolidation and sortation of e-commerce and loose cargo, such as airmail. Our experience in the last-mile automation transfers nicely into this area. We are also conducting market research on an automated ULD-Handling structure. Apart from the air cargo, we have run some simulations on a baggage handling system, where we see potential to reduce the footprint down to 10% compared to current, while keeping the same level of performance. This is another avenue that we have not yet exploited, but it will come to the fore in the near future.

FT:   We are impressed by the ingeniousness of your solution. Probably this idea has now elicited appetites outside of your environment. Has your product been protected with some kind of intellectual property measure?
IK:   The core technology, as well as a few accompanying innovative ideas are protected by a patent. Additionally, we see a lot of applications and solutions, which would not be possible without celluveyor. We go then one step further and patent such applications as well.

FT:   We have the impression that your company sits outside of competition, one way or another. Is this a correct perception, due to the uniqueness of your offer, or do you feel the pressure of competition, and if so by whom?
IK:   We are indeed a player on our own field. For a long time, we have been wondering why we were the only ones on the market with this pretty simple idea, while the whole world of intralogistics was going crazy about AGVs when it came to robotics. As time has shown, our technology creates a completely new market.      Formally we compete with conventional conveyor technology, but in reality, celluveyor allows you to automate processes that where not automatable before. Where it is technically already possible, celluveyor is often the only solution that makes automation profitable.

FT:   Let me conclude this excellent journey in the realm of cellumation by asking you a more particular question. We have seen that your website shows reference to Grant 954282 of the Horizon EU RD program. How crucial was receiving the support of the EU in your development, was it an integral part of the project or did it merely provide additional funds and contacts to speed its development?
IK:   The EU supported us in a crucial moment: market scaling. Obviously, the funds that we received were of great importance. But we also learned a lot while applying for the grant and regular audits helped us to set clear and measurable goals and track our progress. Finally, it means a lot when the EU recognizes you as the most innovative and crucial company in intralogistics at European level. The EU support helped us to go from a few pilot customers to worldwide operation.

FT:   Wow, what a conclusion, Mr Kuznetsov! I took a meandering approach to cellumation, but yours is surely one of the most innovative concepts I have seen.      Let me tell you: this is truly the best way to have air cargo delivered… upside down! Thank you for your time and patience. Our readers will surely find the time and opportunity to get in touch with you for greater details on cellumation.
     Let me close this story and interview with an observation: whether contained in the sinuous cycles of the Mandelbrot Set or in the endless race of the dunes across the desert, or again in the graceful and functional hexagonal containers of the sweetest product of the bees, there is elegance and style all about and you just need to look for it.
Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral     Today, even the clouds in the blue sky outside of my window seem to follow a curious pattern after the storm, allowing the slanting rays of sunshine pierce through and shine on the dark yellow walls of the building in front. I look at the red tiles on its roof and see them all positioned in a nice, elegant pattern, which was just conceived to let the water run down. And again memories come to mind, again and again. If you stand in front of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, you realize that the tiles that are meant to drain the frequent Austrian rain can be positioned also to appear beautiful.
     The tiles on the church’s roof indeed protect the magnificent cathedral from the downpour, but they do it so elegantly! This is precisely what cellumation does. It deals with conveying and sorting cargo, but it does it elegantly. I am sure we shall have some surprise from these guys in future, and it will be as sweet as the honey of the honeycomb, which so faithfully evokes their magic grid.
Marco Sorgetti

For More Information on Cellumation contact: info@cellumation.com

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