More robots can be found on Mars today than in the nation's warehouses, says Tom Bonkenburg, director of European operations for the consulting firm St. Onge Co. But that's about to change.
A mechanical engineering graduate from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Bonkenburg has been fascinated by robots since he was a kid. His dream is to see robots working alongside people in distribution centers. Although that idea may have been far-fetched when he was younger, technological advances are starting to make that dream more realistic.
Up to now, the robots used in maufacturing plants have been too expensive and not flexible or mobile enough to do the tasks found in a distribution center, Bonkenburg told a gathering at the Supply Chain World conference in April. But advances in computing power, vision systems, and sensors are making robots more feasible for warehousing.
What's different today is that the companies that make robots can take advantage of technology originally developed for other industries. In particular, robotics manufacturers can build on advancements in consumer electronics, which they then adapt to their own needs. For example, a low-cost motion control sensor—the Microsoft Kinect—developed for the X-box gaming systems can be used to help robots "see" their surroundings. "The robotics industry is still small, so they are unable to develop low-cost sensors like the consumer electronics industry did due to the low number of robots sold," says Bonkenburg. "Developments in the robotics world rely on the consumer electronics and automotive industries to develop improved computer power, sensors, and actuators that can be repurposed for robotics."
Already, several companies are taking steps in the warehouse robotics direction. Take the efforts to automate forklift operations, for example. Bonkenburg notes that many companies are marketing forklifts that do not require a driver. Egemin Automation has come up with an automated guided vehicle that can pick up and deliver pallets, rolls, and carts. Seegrid has partnered with forklift makers Raymond and Linde Material Handling to make a vision-guided robotic forklift. And Kollmorgen has developed a kit called "Pick-n-Go" to automate a forklift. A picker can then follow the Pick-n-Go-equipped truck down a warehouse aisle.
Piece picking is another warehouse task that's currently being "robotized." The best-known example of this type of system would be the robotized conveyance vehicles from Kiva Systems, which was bought last year by online merchant Amazon. Kiva "bots" bring storage racks to workers for picking and packing. Other companies such as Knapp AG are developing robotized shuttle systems that ferry goods to workers, Bonkenburg says.
But the most interesting development comes from a company called Rethink Robotics. It's selling a robot called "Baxter" with two mechanical arms and a panel-screen face that helps it locate items and pick them up. "You plug it into a wall socket," says Bonkenburg. "You teach it by grabbing its arms and showing it what to do." Although Baxter is an amazing technological breakthrough, distribution centers may have to wait for the second or third generation of this robot to be introduced before putting it to work, says the St. Onge consultant. "It's in its infancy, but it's definitely the right direction."
As costs come down and the machines become more human-like, Bonkenburg expects to see more robots working alongside human beings to boost warehouse efficiency. "My dream is starting to come true," says Bonkenburg. "Companies are building the technologies that are the pieces."