March 25, 2013

Could robots take over loading and receiving docks?

Advances in technology are making it possible for robots to load and unload trailers and containers.

By Toby Gooley

Are robots taking over at the nation's loading and receiving docks? Not exactly, but as our November 2012 story on Frito-Lay's robotic truck loader shows, they're making inroads into what were once human-only domains.

The recent debut of a counterpart device for the receiving dock suggests the trend may be accelerating. Wynright Corp., the material handling engineering firm that developed Frito-Lay's robotic loader, has introduced the Robotic Truck UNloader (RTU)—a machine that can unload floor-loaded products from truck trailers or ocean freight containers. Its "perception" technology—similar to that used in the Wii video game, according to Wynright CEO Kevin Ambrose—allows it to navigate its way into a trailer or container and sense the sidewalls, floor, and stacks of cartons. The vision system maps the shape and dimensions of the next carton or object to be unloaded and guides the robot accordingly. This allows the RTU to pick products of mixed sizes and to pick in regular or irregular patterns.

In action, the RTU is reminiscent of a long-necked dinosaur. It almost seems alive, stopping briefly to survey the stacks and appearing to think carefully before choosing a carton, which it then picks up and gently places on a telescoping motor-driven roller conveyor for transfer into the DC.

New tools for integrating vision technology with laser guidance and robotic mechanisms have made such complex yet reliable machines possible, Ambrose explained in an interview. He foresees growing demand for robots in warehousing, in part because today's retail and e-commerce fulfillment operations require high-speed throughput, which creates an environment that's tough on workers. Repetitive tasks that call for a lot of lifting, twisting and turning, or working in the heat or cold "are nothing for a robot," he said.

That doesn't mean warehouse robotics will entirely replace people, Ambrose noted. Robotic systems require tenders to monitor multiple machines and correct any problems, such as a fallen carton. "It's a more technical support role," he said. "Because of the controls and software involved, you need somebody who understands how to restart, reprogram, and calibrate machines."

Several large retailers and parcel express carriers reportedly are investigating the technology. Ambrose declined to specify the average price of an RTU but said the cost could be justified with one robot covering two dock doors in a multiple-shift operation. "This is an ROI-driven solution," he said. "It eliminates labor dollars and replaces them with capital dollars."

Click here to see the RTU at work.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

More articles by Toby Gooley

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