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Robots at the Airport

Schiphol Airport Enhances Baggage Handling

by Marco van der Hoeven

Schiphol Airport is easing the burden on its baggage handling employees by leveraging robotics. As one of the world’s leaders in robotization, Schiphol has made significant strides in processing 62 million pieces of luggage per year. Rocking Robots sat down with Dennis van Kleef, Program Lead Baggage at Royal Schiphol Group, who will discuss this topic during Vision, Robotics & Motion.

The robotization of baggage handling at Schiphol is not optional. This initiative addresses real challenges, including the working conditions of baggage workers. Improving these conditions has been a priority for some time. After complaints and actions from employees, the process accelerated last year. The Dutch labor inspectorate demanded that the entire baggage process be automated and mechanized within two years. This requirement is unusual, as such reports typically do not specify how physical stress should be eliminated.

Making an Impact

“We promised the labor inspectorate to make as much impact as possible as quickly as possible, to ensure that the 2,000 baggage employees have better working conditions promptly,” says Dennis van Kleef. “However, it is quite a challenge to physically change 150,000 square meters, especially because the required technical solutions cannot be found ready-made anywhere in the world. The baggage system spans fifteen football fields and includes 55 kilometers of conveyor belts and 385 workstations.”

Schiphol is therefore seeking the best technology to improve the working conditions of baggage workers. “Airports are actually several decades behind other industries in the field of robotization. Our first step is to install lifting aids at each workstation as quickly as possible. Wherever a person stands with suitcases, there should be support, including cobots.”

Transition from Physical Work to Supervision

“The second step is to remove the source of physical strain through robotization, with autonomous transport between all work locations. This means there will be a fundamental change in employees’ roles. The baggage handler will transition from doing physical work to overseeing robots and machines, and intervening when necessary. This is a significant change.”

For Van Kleef, these workplace changes are more important than the technical aspects. “Installing robots is only a small part of the solution. We must also define with employees what their future roles will look like. To this end, we are working with the FRAIM consortium, consisting of robot specialists, ergonomists, and industrial psychologists. They will shape the future of work alongside KLM baggage employees, other handlers, and Schiphol employees.”

Cobot Implementation

The technical component, including a pilot with nineteen cobots as possible lifting aids, recently made the news. Schiphol collaborates with the Danish company COBOT Lift and holds a ten percent share in it. Additionally, Van Kleef represents Schiphol on the company’s board to help scale and navigate the aviation industry. Efforts are also underway to select a supplier for autonomous transport in the baggage cellars.

“The collaboration between robots and people, as well as the interaction between machines, is crucial. If we soon have a robot that can easily load suitcases into containers, the vehicle transporting those containers must also operate autonomously. So we have an incredible amount to learn and we are doing a lot simultaneously.”

Challenges in Implementation

Implementing robots at Schiphol poses unique challenges. Van Kleef explains, “Schiphol’s operations are focused on peak times, where everyone works hard during the peak and then there is a period of rest. This rhythm is difficult for robots, as they are not easily programmed for fluctuating peak loads. Robots are better suited for constant output without breaks.”

Another challenge is adjusting our control software to efficiently integrate the cobots. “Once the cobots are installed, they perform excellently, but significant adjustments to the control software are required to handle baggage flows properly.”

Learning Process

A third aspect involves the vacuum technology many cobots use. “It depends on air supply, which works fine for open carts but becomes problematic for containers with a roof, as cobots cannot load effectively from above.”

“The operational and technical challenges we face in fully integrating cobots into our baggage handling are a learning process. Each step provides valuable insights into how we can optimize our operations while improving working conditions for our employees. Schiphol is seen internationally as a pioneer in robotics and autonomous transport, and I promote international cooperation to learn from other industries like Tesla and Amazon, which lead in automation and innovation. We focus on scalable technologies now, but remain open to new developments for future integration.”

Employee Involvement

The most important aspect, however, is employee involvement. “The fact that the 2,000 baggage employees do not work directly for Schiphol but for handling companies adds an extra layer to the leadership and communication issue. It is essential to include these employees, whom I consider my colleagues, in the process of change.”

“The robots will not take over their jobs. We want to make it clear that these changes are to their advantage. Employees can actively contribute to their future working environment. This is a classic change process where technology is only part of the challenge. Discussions with them are not just about technology, but about their needs and whether they feel seen and heard.”

“By actively involving employees and showing them how these technologies can support them in their daily work, we reduce resistance and build trust. The ultimate goal is to create a working environment where people and machines work together effectively and safely, leveraging the unique strengths of each to achieve optimal operational efficiency.”

Images: Schiphol

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