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How Robots are Reworking Warehouse and Distribution Centers

For a consumer, shopping online is convenient and easy. Visit a website, find a product, click on it and expect the package to show up at your door.  What shoppers don’t see is the automation on the move and the efficiencies that robotics has brought to the industry.

In about five years, the use of robotics in warehouse and distribution centers has gone from being a “premature” science, as noted in The Robot Report, to pick and place technology that creates a make-or-break competitive advantage.

Robots still can’t grab items like people can, although that day will soon arrive as companies like German firm Magazino perfects a robot that grabs items off shelves.

Currently, robots are primarily used within distribution centers to reduce the distances workers have to walk to get products.

The Big Picture

Flexible robots have brought change to warehouse and distribution centers and the need has spurred development in collaborative robotics. The technology has to respond to environments that are less structured than the manufacturing sector. Development in logistics should prove beneficial to the use of flexible robots in all industries.

Robots are made up of components including docking stations and pods. They’re one unit comprised of many parts.

Creating solutions is happening in a global marketplace with companies building solutions from North America and Europe to India.

Robots aren’t just replacing jobs, but they’re a benefit to companies because of looming labor shortages according to the article Mobile Robots and Intralogistics the Always-On Supply Chain on the Robotic Industries Association website.

The Big Players

If you bring shelves of goods to the people and waiting trucks then you’ll have a more efficient system than making workers walk around to pick up goods.

That was the idea behind Kiva and the founder, Mick Mountz, as written in an article on Robohub.org, Meet the drone that already delivers your packages, Kiva robot teardown.

Kiva was a forward-looking solution founded in 2003 before e-commerce became popular. Once Kiva developed and was functional with the self-driving low-profile vehicles, Amazon bought out the system in 2012. Critics say that left a technological gap but other companies are rushing to fill in and offer their systems.

Swisslog’s CarryPick uses low-profile robotic vehicles following QR codes on the floor in a way that is similar to Amazon’s Kiva, but it uses four clamp-on devices to lift and move the shelves while Kiva has a single screw-on mechanism.

The CarryPick is 96% owned by KUKA AG and is presently only sold in Europe.

The Big Opportunity

Demand for automated solutions is growing, and the field remains wide open as Wal-Mart and other large retailers still use mostly people.

Expect innovation to continue. What happened last year in warehouse and distribution automation may very well change this year and next. Autonomous pods that follow markings on the floor are already becoming outmoded in favor of the newest 3D vision systems and mapping software to avoid collisions.

An article on Bloomberg.com, How Amazon Triggered a Robot Arms Race, highlights some start-up companies vying for a niche in the logistics sector. Here are just a few:

  • 6 River Systems, Boston, is a start-up of former Kiva executives working with “select customers on pilots.”
  • Fetch Robotics, San Jose, follows workers and “fetches” items they pick off the shelves.
  • Gray Orange has a 120-member team working near New Delhi, India to perfect a “butler” system that provides data analysis and moves shelves to where products can be assembled and packed.

The Big Question

Automation is occurring because it’s necessary and not just because of the bells and whistles and a “wow” factor. Societies have always looked for ways to use machines to improve how we get from one place to another and to make work easier.

Robotics fits the same principle. A compelling report by logistics giant DHL, Robotics in Logistics, makes the case that a looming labor shortage is very real: “The managers of tomorrow’s supply chains will need to either continue to raise costs while reducing service or will need to compensate with automation that can support workers and increase productivity.”

Automated solutions using sensors and software will continue developing and improving the speed and accuracy that distribution centers fulfill orders.

Automated technology is enriching the lives of consumers and creating new opportunities in the workplace. Stay on top of trends and get trained with resources through A3automate.org.