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Can Robot Dreams Come True?

If you have ever spent time around children, you will see that some boys are fascinated with fire trucks, others may dream of tractors, and still others would do anything to fly an airplane. As a young boy all of those things were interesting to me but there was one thing that I loved above all others: robots. This feeling stuck with me through college where I became a mechanical engineer just so that I could learn to design and build new types of robots and automated machines.

For the past 18 years, I’ve worked as a consultant advising customers on supply chain and warehouse design. Helping a client to decide if they should automate or not is something that I get to do every week, and even now I still become excited when we discuss the potential of robotics.

In distribution centers across the world, the most common category of robotic technology implemented in the past has been AS/RS (automated storage/retrieval systems), AGVs (automated guided vehicles), shuttle systems, transfer cars, palletizers – to name just a few technologies – which have become mature and well understood.

In some cases these automated systems are a perfect fit, but for many operations they are too expensive or not flexible enough. Research currently shows that 80% of warehouses are still manually operated with no supporting automation. What we need is a different type of robot, one that is a better fit for our modern distribution needs. The logistics robot of our dreams should be low cost, multipurpose, retrainable, redeployable, and safe to work around. The good news is that in many ways our dreams may soon be coming true.

Next generation robotics

New ideas, low-cost sensors, and faster computers are being combined with innovative robotics in research centers around the world. Universities and startup companies are making breakthroughs that are giving prototype robots the capability to take on new logistic applications. One company is working on a robot that will roam the warehouse shelves picking pieces like a person would. Another is developing robot forklifts that will automatically load or unload trucks. Still others are experimenting with exoskeletons to help workers remain productive and safe in their later years.

Most of these systems are not yet ready for full commercialization but the field is evolving rapidly and the potential for real progress is higher than ever before.

Invest, lest you lose

It goes without saying that companies willing to invest now in developing prospective robotic technologies will have a future competitive advantage over others that do not. The rapidly changing logistics industry isn’t going to become any less complex than it already is and high quality labor will continue to be difficult to find. Companies like Amazon understand this. In 2012 Amazon bought the startup robotics company Kiva Systems for $775 million and now they claim to have installed 30,000 of their robots across several distribution centers.

In the future, as logistic robots become more capable and prevalent, we may see that even smaller companies will need to invest in advanced technology to meet the competitive demands of the marketplace.

The 24/7 working world

New e-commerce business models are pushing companies to provide higher quality and faster services levels to their customers. Unlike today, the distribution centers of tomorrow will have to run 24/7 to meet customer demands for speed and efficiency. Robotic warehouses and parcel sorting centers will help support these around-the-clock requirements by providing equal productivity on each shift. The new supply chain will facilitate multiple shipments to end customers each day. By fully utilizing equipment across shifts, economies of scale will lower logistic costs and, by processing multiple daily delivery waves, faster service will be the result.

Of exoskeletons and Baxter

Much has been said in the recent past about the fourth industrial revolution now upon us. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, says that we stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. From exoskeletons for humans to home delivery and mobile piece picking robots as well as potential co-packers, such as Baxter or Sawyer, emerging technologies are evolving quickly and hold great future promise for the logistics industry.

And as these new robotic technologies are developed and gradually implemented throughout the supply chain, traditional warehouse workers will be given more responsibility and higher-level tasks such as managing operations, coordinating flows, fixing robots, and handling exceptions or difficult orders.

Talent, always in demand

I’m quite optimistic that humans and robots will strike a balance working alongside each other, each supporting the other. Robots are essentially tools that all smart logistics teams will want to integrate into their processes when the time is right and the technology is ready. At the end of the day, a supply chain will only be as good as the people who work within it. The demand for talented and motivated people will not diminish. On the contrary, it will go up as we strive to develop and improve the supply chains of our future.

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