Robotics Finds Its Place In Fulfillment


From Bdaily News
By Roberto Michel

Robotics has gained rapid traction in the last few years of economic growth and low unemployment, as companies began implementing as a means of increasing productivity and coping with the labor crunch. Now the COVID-19 disruption has changed the unemployment picture, but vendors still see a pressing need for innovation.

Extraordinary times—and a need for proven measures—may be what propels robotics to the next level in warehouse and distribution center (DC) operations.

Not that robotics has been slow to catch on in warehousing. According to analyst firm ABI Research, the global mobile robotics market will reach $23 billion this year. In a 2020 survey by Peerless Research as part of our annual “Industry Outlook” study, 9% surveyed told us they were already using robotics, and 19% were considering them.

But can robotics for intralogistics keep growing quickly, given the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic? Unemployment has skyrocketed. Some manufacturers temporarily had to shut down sites, and many companies have tightened their budgets, at least in the short term.

At the same time, e-commerce has spiked, especially in sectors like grocery. And while it may be too early to tally the impacts of the pandemic on robotics, in the long term, the technology’s ability to increase productivity with minimal added labor bodes well for the technology, says Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI.

“From what we’re seeing, there has been a huge increase in demand for e-commerce during the pandemic,” says Whitton.”

“And the greater the percentage of retail that shifts to online, the more heavily automated these warehouses and other facilities involved with fulfillment will need to become, which should accelerate the market for mobile robotics.”

Robotics spans autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that transport goods or assist workers with picking, as well as fixed robotic arms that can identify and pick goods. Some workflows may combine the two, with AMRs transporting bins to robotic arms. Some vendors, such as IAM Robotics, offer “mobile manipulation” robots that can pick items.

In short, there are multiple types of robotics, and they often work in combination with people, or with fixed forms of automation like conveyors. This range of solution types is the first thing potential users need to realize about warehouse robotics.

Robotics vendors say there are other ways that robotics is evolving for intralogistics, including new workflows, better exception handling, and deeper leveraging of artificial intelligence (AI). What’s more, robotics aligns with the times in that they can help keep human co-workers safe, while keeping orders flowing to customers.

Right for the times

During the last couple of years, when unemployment was at historic lows, an often-cited driver for robotics was how it could make the labor you could find more effective by doing away with much of the non-value-added time spent walking or pushing carts in large DCs.

While for the recently unemployed, warehousing can provide much needed work, since due to health concerns, many companies will likely continue to struggle to find enough people without increased automation, say some vendors.

“From a business perspective, the big challenges are that we’re running out of people, we’ve been running out of space, and we’ve been running out of time,” says Jeff Cashman, COO with AMR vendor GreyOrange.

“Even before COVID-19, it was difficult to hire and retain enough associates,” adds Cashman. “Now, because of health risk concerns, it’s still difficult to find enough people, and on top of that, there’s the need to practice social distancing, and time pressures operations face haven’t gotten any easier. Those three problems—running out of people, running out of space, and running out of time—can be seen as underlying drivers for robotics. It’s important, however, that the robots are integrated with a software that is real-time and flexible, to solve those problems.”

Software as differentiator

Vendors generally agree that the key to robotics effectiveness is the software smarts that leverages technologies like AI and machine learning so that the system constantly learns from factors like order mix, labor resources and material flow patterns.

The software platform for most robotics solutions also employs AI to constantly learn from operations and dynamically adapt to tasks and routes as the work unfolds. “The most important part of a solution is the software, which is AI-based software that is real-time in nature,” says Cashman. Robotics software, he adds, should be able to adjust tasks on the fly, based on factors like what’s currently coming into the order pool, where each robot is, and the current performance level of the workers.

“The software is really integrated into the robots so that when the system is thinking about orders or inventory or the particular people that are picking, or the available robots, it’s weighing these factors all at once,” says Cashman. “And it’s that ability to orchestrate all of these components in real time…that’s the difference with the robotics of today versus a generation ago.”

Read the full article at Modern Materials Handling.

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