Got CoBots? The Human-Robot Warehouse Takes Off


Asking a worker to plough a field with a spade seems a far cry from the world of interconnected robots and automation that’s emerging all around us. But in many respects that’s the kind of task we still assign to many workers, all across the supply chain. Either way – from the sourcing of raw materials to sneaker manufacturing – more likely than not a robot collaborator was involved.

A CoBot, or collaborative robot, is a type of autonomous mobile robot built to assist humans across a variety of tasks.

CoBots are often designed to do the heavy lifting, the dirty work – get into the hard-to-reach places, enabling humans to do more with less, and remove a notable amount of workplace injury risk.

Typically, CoBots have been small, independent machines that act on the instruction of a single operator. In other words, if I were using the robot, I would control its movement and actions directly. This human-robot collaborative model has been leveraged across multiple industries, with CoBots performing activities as advanced as highly delicate surgical procedures, or as rudimentary as unblocking drains.

CoBots represent a wave of technological advancement that’s steadily gaining momentum. It’s worth paying attention to see this change happen behind the scenes and the meaningful impact it’s having.


Standardization gets customized

While the manufacturing part of the supply chain has been reaping the benefits of robotic automation for well over 25 years, the industry has tended focus on standardization and high-volume production. But the world has gotten quite a bit richer in the same time period and transport, electronics and entertainment have stepped up activity to deliver the same high-quality items to millions of new consumers. The perfect convergence of demand and capability has taken place.

Standardized methodologies moved upstream to warehouse and fulfillment. Investments by big business to support growth have delivered huge warehouse spaces built on a backbone of standardization and consistency. However, the world has changed, particularly in the retail industry, demanding a much greater degree of personalization along with the immediacy of next-day and same-day delivery options. As a result, the idea of offering a standardized service has become outdated, eroding the cost efficiencies of centralized fulfillment. Once-leading retailers that didn’t rethink their fulfillment processes have struggled to compete.


Meet the new coworkers

Responding to the demand for a more sustainable supply chain, inventory and fulfillment are undergoing a sea change. Warehouse CoBots are the logical first step towards a more flexible, automated fulfillment system. CoBots can be integrated into existing or new warehouse setups with minimal disruption and relocated to wherever they’re needed – anywhere in the world – giving warehousing incredible levels of flexibility to match ever-changing demands.

The next generation of CoBots go beyond providing reactive support to become proactive members of the team. They interact with company information systems, continuously optimize the live data flowing across the business, and make on-the-move decisions. CoBots supply human workers with critical information in real time, offering unparalleled levels of agility in response to real-time input. What’s more, the robot-person connection holds the potential to build continuous improvement into the core operations of a business – nowhere more so than in the warehouse.


Robots on the “edge”

The leading warehouse CoBots are not only mobile, they’re smart, too. These helpers not only lift heavy items, but they also communicate vital information to key workers and optimize their activity based on what’s happening in the wider ecosystem. Capitalizing on WiFi connections, a new level of optimization is being realized by CoBot vendors via edge computing, where data is accessed and analyzed right where it’s needed to deliver faster insights and facilitate action. The AI brains of CoBots play a critical role in gathering data and feeding it back into the system, taking a jump forward for robotics by allowing humans and droids to communicate bidirectionally.

Centrally controlled cloud-based systems can run into problems when communication to the robotic workforce relies on low-bandwidth WiFi. This hurdle is overcome by thinking about warehouse fulfillment  work differently – by seeing it as chunks or small waves of activity, with CoBots running on their own for up to five minutes at a time. As a result, the CoBots no longer rely on constant connection, and instead function using small packets of data with instructions on what to do for the next few minutes, the few minutes after that, and so on. It’s a practical solution that works.


A cooperative friendship  

Who doesn’t know someone with a robot vacuum cleaner or an electric car that parks itself? CoBots working with people will become commonplace over the next few years, helping us across many aspects of our lives. Powered by AI, robot helpers in different shapes and sizes will drive productivity and superpower the world’s cutting edge factories and fulfillment centers.

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