The word "robot" derives from a Czech term dating back to 1920 that means something on the order of "forced labor." Our more contemporary sense of a machine capable of some intelligence and of manipulating materials comes to us more from the realm of science fiction—the thinking robots of Isaac Asimov, George Lucas, and others.
The robots that are increasingly found in modern distribution centers combine, in some sense, both of these concepts. They are capable of nearly endlessly repeating the same action, work that is pure drudgery for a human. And, largely as a result of improvements in their underlying sensors, software, and vision systems, they are becoming more sophisticated, easier to program, and capable of a wider variety of tasks.
And it's that capability for intelligent drudgery that may be at the core of why robots have a substantial future in the DC.
Earl Wohlrab, product manager for robotics systems and palletizing for Intelligrated, a maker of automated material handling systems, lays out why robots will be a good fit. "We've got a labor problem around several different issues: finding qualified people and finding people that desire to do that kind of work," he says. "Gone are the days that someone is going to retire out of a DC. Nobody wants to spend day after day in the back of a truck in an Atlanta summer. It's going to be more than a desire to use robots; we're going to be required to go to robots."
Brené Tymensky, vice president of engineering for Fortna, a supply chain and material handling consultancy, believes the future of robots in DCs is "unlimited." He foresees a day when robots in the DC interact more frequently with other machines than with humans. "We're getting closer and closer to the lights-out realm we've envisioned for many years," he says. "I don't think we'll ever get to that completely, but robots are interfacing more with the machine and less with the person."
ROBOTS "SEE" BETTER, FASTER
As for what's led to the increased presence of robots in DCs, the experts interviewed for this article agreed that it was more about technological breakthroughs and enhancements than changes in the robotic hardware itself. The robot manufacturers have already solved most of the problems around the physical handling of products, explains Dean Starovasnik, practice leader for distribution engineering design at Atlanta-based systems integrator and consultancy Peach State Integrated Technologies.
Tymensky of Fortna agrees. "The real advances have been in the software and vision systems and learning techniques," he says. Those vision system improvements—the cameras and related technology that enable robots to "see" what they are handling—allow robots to manipulate a greater variety of products than in the past, a key capability in a DC environment. Also important, he says, is the ability to retrain robots quickly as patterns in the DC change, which happens much more often than in manufacturing.
Wohlrab of Intelligrated adds that today's robots not only see better, they see faster—an attribute with major implications for DCs. "Today's systems not only offer robot vision with fine detail, they offer much higher speeds than in the past," he says. "That's what we needed to be able to survive the robust nature of the DCs. When a shipping wave comes at you, it's partially controlled pandemonium. That's a difficult environment for a robot."
But it's not just about enhancements in vision. Advances in controls have played a role as well, says Starovasnik. Today's sophisticated controls—essentially the technology that directs the robot's motions—enable the devices to handle the greater complexity demanded in distribution applications compared with manufacturing, he explains.
Larry Boroff, director of automation systems engineering for systems integrator and supply chain consultancy Forte, notes that he has seen gains from manufacturers in both mechanical systems and underlying technology. "The gripper mechanisms are getting better, and vision systems are starting to get better," he says.
BUILDING COMPLEX PALLETS
One result of these enhancements is to boost robots' capabilities in an area where they have already made great inroads in DCs—palletizing and depalletizing. It's a timely advance, as rainbow pallets (those with a variety of different items) are becoming more common, especially in retailing. Earlier generations of palletizers worked well with cartons of a uniform size. The new generation can accommodate cartons of a variety of sizes and weights.
"We're trying to right-size all the cartons, so the number of box sizes is going up," says Tymensky. "We want to optimize the palletizing, and in the past, we had to do that manually." The newest generation of palletizing robots are able to manage that variety.
Not only can today's robots handle cartons of different sizes, but they can also load them on pallets in a specific order. Starovasnik says that robotic systems from companies like Witron and Schaefer are able to build pallets to a planogram (a diagram of a store's interior indicating where products are located). That is, they add cases to pallets in the reverse order they are needed in the store aisle. That way, he explains, a worker in the store can unload from the top down while moving down the aisle, eliminating backroom sortation and thus, labor.
In addition, Starovasnik says, the pallets are built so as to reduce damage and make the best use of cube in transportation, further reducing those costs. To do that, he says, the robotic system not only has to "understand" how to build a square pallet with various-sized cartons, but it must do so in a way that accounts for carton weight (with heavy cases on the bottom) and such factors as isolating food from hazardous materials. In addition, as it builds the pallet, the robot must sense any earlier cartons that might be in its path—it must work in three dimensions. These are expensive systems, he says, but they provide considerable savings downstream.
The key to making all this work is data, says Mike Khodl, vice president of solutions development for systems supplier and integrator Dematic. "It is absolutely critical that the data repository—whether an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system or a warehouse management or warehouse control system—has knowledge of every case, including its physical footprint, weight, and crushability," he says. "Those attributes—and several others—have to be put into a cubing algorithm driven by software on how to put the pallet together." He compares the process to doing a Tetris puzzle at high speed.
The recent advances in palletizing are just the forefront of what robots will be able to do in DCs in the years to come. Case and piece picking, taking over tasks in hazardous environments, and even packaging applications are all possibilities.
"One day, we could see a robot mosey on down into the pick aisle," Wohlrab muses. "That could be years from now, but we're not all that far away from some things." He says, for instance, that Intelligrated is looking at robots that could unload floor-loaded trucks. That technology could be as close as 12 to 24 months away, he says.
Nonetheless, Wohlrab acknowledges that the technology still has a ways to go. "We are trying to shoehorn in software from the manufacturing side," he says. He adds that costs need to fall further and that tools for programming robots need to improve before robots make greater inroads into DCs. But he expects that to happen.
Tymensky speculates that as software matures and competition among robot manufacturers increases, costs may drop in ways that make robots feasible for lower-volume operations.
James Bowes, Peach State's president and CEO, is of the same mind. "As the technology moves from the early adopter phase and the control systems become more dependable and the cost of labor continues to grow, the [technology] becomes much more affordable and attractive," he says.
As for what's ahead, Khodl says, "If I were to paint a picture of the future, we would see item-level picking with robotics come to some form of reality. I could see robotics replacing labor in goods-to-person picking operations."
To get there will require further breakthroughs in vision systems, Bowes says, and will likely apply first to operations with a high volume of similar goods. But he expects the problem will be solved.
The potential for robots in DCs is limited only by the imagination of developers and end users. "I can envision robots involved in every step from picking through cutting a custom-sized carton, packaging, and labeling," Tymensky says. "If we get to the far end of the spectrum, we might even see them doing gift wrapping. It's a repetitive process. The potential is kind of unlimited."