Mention robots, and warehouses aren't the first thing that comes to mind. Most of us are more likely to think of these mechanical "men" as characters out of Isaac Asimov's sci-fi novels or movies like "Star Wars." But developments under way make it likely that you'll see robots in distribution centers this decade.
In many ways, a distribution center provides an ideal environment for robots. Warehousing tasks like stacking and picking tend to be repetitive and boring—the kinds of chores most humans would gladly swap for a chance to do something more challenging and creative. Yet for decades, the notion of putting robots to work in the DC was more science fiction than reality.
Recent advances in computing power, sensor technology, and software intelligence have changed all that. In particular, the advent of powerful but low-cost computer chips has opened the door to advancements in robotics, making it possible for software to process all the input signals needed to make a robot move and respond.
Today, a number of companies offer robotic solutions designed for warehouses and DCs. Jervis B.Webb has come up with a robotic lift truck, named the "SmartLoader," that can move loads from palletizer output, racks, or floor staging into over-the-road trailers without human intervention. The SmartLoader picks up signals from transponders embedded in the floor.
And Kiva Systems of Woburn, Mass., has developed an order fulfillment system that relies on robots to carry products stored on portable shelves to order pickers. (For more on Kiva's solution, see "a DC gets its own fast fulfillment," DC VELOCITY, September 2008.)
One of the newest players in the industrial robotics market is the Pittsburgh-based Seegrid Corp. The name "Seegrid" refers to the robots' ability to see within a detailed grid—the units are actually able to take camera images and process that visual input. The capacity to identify objects gives them more freedom of movement than, say, an automated guided vehicle (AGV), which relies on a wire to guide it.
The company makes two types of robots for warehousing. One, a tugger, can haul parts and goods through a facility. The other moves pallets. An operator simply positions the robot's forks under the pallet, and the robot ferries the load to an assigned location, drops off the pallet, and returns to the starting point. "The robot is usually hauling something that people don't want to do," says Greg Cronin, an executive vice president at Seegrid.
At present, the robots are programmed to stop when they "see" a human in their path. But Cronin says that the next generation of robots will be able to move around objects. Along with enhanced mobility, the robots will likely be equipped with voice technology so that warehouse associates can give the machines spoken commands.
As workers, robots have an advantage over human labor in that they can work three shifts, 24 hours a day. In the past, cost has been an impediment to their adoption, but that too may be giving way. Cronin says his company's mobile industrial robots cost a third as much as an AGV. He reports that one company that purchased robots to haul away trash in three shifts recouped its investment in less than 12 months. Genco Supply Chain Solutions and Daimler Trucks are both using these robots in their operations.
Right now, robots are still limited in the functions they can perform. It may be a decade or so before robotic technology advances to the point where robots resemble anything like a mechanical man who can perform a full array of warehouse activities. But technology is certainly moving in that direction.
If companies like Seegrid can develop more humanlike robots for a moderate cost, robots could be fixtures in the warehouse and distribution center within the decade. And after working side by side with robots all day, some workers may be greeted by robots when they go home at night. At the annual conference of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals last fall, Cronin reported that Seegrid is developing a home companion robot slated for introduction around 2015.