An automatic warehouse for chips in no time at all

What do you do when you need to build a complete automatic storage system for high-end products within three months? The automation and product development company EPHI called Festo to work with them. The Eindhoven-based full-service supplier managed to help its Asian customer at lightning speed with an automated storage and retrieval system for semiconductors.

Fresh out of Eindhoven University of Technology, industrial designer Bowling Karapun and supply chain and logistics specialist Thomas Paauwe saw two routes ahead: go into salaried employment or start their own company. Together they chose the second option and threw themselves into the development and sale of luminaires for LED lighting, from smart fixtures and optimised designs to organic designs and implementations. Now you can buy these in all shapes, sizes and price ranges, but when they started this was very new.

"In terms of proposition, price and quality, we were comfortable," Karapun looks back. But the startup soon identified a challenge when the established LED lighting suppliers stepped into that market. 'We could never win that battle,' the pair realised and decided to apply their competencies to intralogistics, material handling and automation.

'The return on investment for machines became more and more interesting,' Karapun observed. Indeed, for a long time the trend was that it was cheaper to hire a people for the task. 'The rise and growth of e-commerce and rising wages heralded a change. And nowadays you never have to discuss the fact that a human might be able to perform such a task better or cheaper.'

EPHI - Bowling Karapun

'If I had to change to the specified new supplier I could not immediately expect the support we needed,' said EPHI's Bowling Karapun, who therefore insisted on Festo.

Automatic storage systems

The young entrepreneurs renamed their company EPHI and started focusing on transporting products. For Karapun, it is indeed that straightforward. 'In 99% of intralogistics applications, a package or a product comes in that has to be scanned, goes once left and once right, and is eventually taken out of the lane.'

In response to market demand, EPHI has now gone a step further and the company is focusing on automated storage systems for custom products on automated storage and retrieval systems or, as EPHI calls it, on Mini-Loads. To that end, the company developed its UTC, which stands for Universal Transportation Controller. Karapun: 'It's a computer with lots of I/Os with which we can control all the components in a Mini-Load; control motors, read out sensors, everything.'

EPHI, of course, is far from being the only automated storage and retrieval solution provider in the world. That's why it focuses on the difficult cases, for example if such a storage system has to run in a clean room, or if a custom solution has to be commissioned from scratch within a few months.

Precise and safe handling

A good example of EPHI's expertise is the automatic storage system it recently designed for an Asian customer in the semiconductor industry. Karapun is not allowed to mention the customer name, but he can outline the situation: 'As part of chip production, dies have to be tested extensively. This is done in huge halls where there are perhaps a thousand machines. Our Mini-Load is the buffer between production and test, between test and test, and between test and packaging.'

The dies are in trays that are stored per about twenty in a cassette. 'All in all, such a cassette represents an enormous amount of value, which is why the customer wants it to be handled accurately and safely. They came to us with that question,' says Karapun



A high-end automatic storage system is right up EPHI's alley, but the Asian customer gave a few additional requests. 'To begin with, all the specs and details were on one A4 sheet,' Karapun says. 'For one system, that's okay, but now it involved three different storage systems, so it was a serious challenge to manage the scope of the project. Especially since everything had to be operational within just 12 weeks.'

That time pressure caused some headaches. Such a short lead time is difficult anyway, but the project was in the middle of a period of global component and material shortages. So Karapun immediately called Jeroen te Brake, key account manager at Festo. 'The unique thing about this project is that everything had to be arranged in no time,' says Te Brake. 'Then it is important to quickly get clarity on which components you need. Especially in a time of shortages.'


Karapun had to fight to implement the storage system with Festo components, because the customer had specified another brand. 'But we work with Festo, so it was that or nothing,' said Karapun, 'From a new supplier, I couldn't immediately expect the support we needed. And we needed that support 100%.

The down-to-earth Karapun involved Festo closely in the development. 'Engineers are trained to calculate everything, but I don't think that way of thinking is of our time anymore. Of course, I can make some calculations on a scrap piece of paper and then search the Festo site to see which components belong to it, but it would be arrogant of me to think that I know better than the Festo engineers who do this every day.’

At Festo in Delft, automation engineer Arjan van Zoest went to work with the parameters he received from EPHI. Te Brake explains: 'Using our Electric Motion Sizing simulation tool, among others, we started looking at how we could make everything fit together and which combination of components would give the best result. The tool suggests the best product combination based on a small number of parameters, ideal for this project because the input was relatively limited.'

In consultation with EPHI, the Festo engineers arrived at the best solution. There was an additional desire to put in as many of the same motors as possible, so that there would be speed in the ordering process. This did indeed mean that a number of drives were oversized. But Karapun doesn't mind that at all: "My biggest fear was we would pick a motor that would turn out not to be strong enough in practice. Moreover, by choosing an oversized solution, I had room to easily respond to additional customer specs.'

Te Brake adds: 'By putting extra hours into the concept phase, we eventually gained a lot of time. And got a lot of certainty in return. This also created a nice balance between what was needed and what we could deliver quickly at that time. In future assignments, when we have more time, we can go into more depth for calculations. Back then, based on measurement data, we can see how the motors are loaded in practice and select the right motor-controller combination. For the sake of speed and reliability, we didn't give ourselves that space in this project.'

EPHI_Remote I/O

Remote I/O

EPHI's solution runs on the CPX-AP-I in combination with the CPX-E, Festo's PLC system based entirely on Codesys. The Eindhoven software engineers programmed all the controls in it with support from Festo because close cooperation was essential in the project. 'We are increasingly seeing that we are much more involved in the concept phase with our customers,' says Te Brake. 'In the detail phase and during the calculations, but also in the after-sales. I think it's a strength of Festo that customers get support from A to Z.' Karapun nods in agreement. It's not for nothing that he put his foot down when the end customer asked for another supplier.

Another advantage the two men point out is the fact that Festo supplies its components as function blocks. 'The motor, shaft and controller are a complete solution,' Te Brake clarifies. 'And that often has to be linked to a superordinate system. We always supply a concise manual with it, including software and a sample program.'

Karapun is very pleased with Festo's CPX-AP-I remote I/O platform. 'That has given us a lot of flexibility in setup and integration,' he says. 'We had to build in some additional functions halfway through the project, for example. That was now a matter of adding an I/O because we didn't suddenly have to turn the entire electrical schematic upside down.'

Blueprint for growth

Now the project is complete and the machine is running in Asia, Karapun is looking further ahead. 'It wasn't necessarily in our growth plan a few years ago, but we see that the semiconductor market is currently heading toward Europe. There, far-reaching automation will certainly be an important issue as well, and we can demonstrate that we have experience in this part of the process. The blueprint is there.