Industrial sensor manufacturer Sick AG is using an outdoor testing facility in southern Germany to measure the impact of harsh environmental conditions on the sensitive electronic devices it manufactures to support inventory scanning and material handling equipment operations for logistics networks.
The site opened in the summer of 2018 alongside a distribution center operated by Sick since 2016 in Buchholz, a rural town in the foothills of Germany's rugged Black Forest. Although the remote site is located far from big cities—Frankfurt is two hours north by train—it sits just a few miles from Sick's headquarters in Waldkirch and offers a full climate spectrum of hot summers, rainy springs, and snowy winters.
Those raw, rough conditions are good not only for producing the region's Hirschen-Brau pils beer and Freiburg's Baden wines, but also for offering engineers a chance to test their sensors against tough weather standards. Operating in cold, wet, variable conditions is critical for devices that are designed to work in supply chain applications such as loading docks, rail tracks, and moving vehicles, Sick executives say.
In a recent tour of the company's Outdoor Technology Center, reporters stomped their feet to stay warm on a January evening while viewing demonstrations of both dynamic and static sensor testing in realistic conditions.
In one corner of the site, Sick has constructed a paved test track for self-driving cars, which steer themselves around orange traffic cones in a figure-eight pattern. Testing these dynamic, mobile installations help improve performance for sensors attached to lift trucks in warehouses, vehicles on public roads, or trucks at dusty mine sites, the company says. In all those applications, engineers try to deliver reliable performance while avoiding false alarms, which could trigger expensive work stoppages if roads or DCs are closed to avoid phantom collisions, the company said.
One vehicle driving the course during the tour was a "Paravan" electric van designed for use by the disabled, and adapted by Sick for autonomous use. The truck has six sensors on the front bumper alone—offering readings with hypersonic, 1D and 2D radar, and 2D and multilayer laser scanners. Additional sensors on the truck's roof, cargo bed, and rear bumper measure motion, location, and other variables.
Another corner of the site contains a mock railway station for static sensor testing, complete with iron rails, a concrete train platform, and an operable safety gate at a vehicle crossing. Sensors installed around that unit will trigger flashing warning lights and notify safety staff if a careless passenger dangles his legs off the platform or if a car or tree blocks the rails.
According to Sick, these stationary sensors are mounted on immobile infrastructure for tasks from scanning passing freight rail cars with radio frequency identification (RFID) signals to monitoring security along the fence-line of a prison or warehouse with Lidar and video sensors.