Under pressure from exploding e-commerce demand, labor shortages, and Covid-19 health restrictions, retailers have increasingly turned to warehouse robotics as a way to safely carry out order fulfillment tasks.
However, plans to install new fleets of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) have been snarled in 2020 by travel restrictions and occupancy limits imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In some cases, robot vendors have been forced to cancel plans to send technicians out to install equipment at customers' sites, which is their normal operating procedure.
But that's not to say those installs have been put on hold. Rather than bow to the obstacles, warehouse robotics companies have stepped up to the challenge, finding creative ways to launch their equipment in distant DCs without ever setting foot on the premises.
One such company is Westlake Village, California-based inVia Robotics, which announced in June that it had landed a contract to supply its AMRs to Kantsu, a Japanese logistics and warehousing service provider. With the Asia Pacific region experiencing red-hot e-commerce growth—online sales jumped 25% in 2019 and are forecast to reach $3 trillion by 2021—Kantsu was looking to automate fulfillment operations in its primary DC in Osaka, the vendor said in the announcement. As part of the deal, it added, inVia would provide 200 of its "Picker" robots along with its "Logic" warehouse optimization software.
In normal times, inVia would have sent a field technician to Japan to oversee the receipt and deployment of the robots as well as the software integration. As part of the process, the technician would also have "driven" a robot around the facility to create the digital map that would allow it to navigate autonomously.
But that wouldn't be possible in this case. The Japanese government had closed its borders to foreign travelers in March, ruling out a site visit. With travel off the table, inVia had to find a way to automate Kantsu's warehouse from thousands of miles away.
In the end, the process turned out to be surprisingly straightforward, according to inVia CEO Lior Elazary, who notes that in many cases, it was a simple matter of relaying instructions to staff on the ground in Japan. He cites the prep work required to enable the navigation system as an example. The bots, which are outfitted with visual sensors, navigate by scanning quick response (QR)-type bar-code stickers placed around a warehouse, Elazary says. Since it couldn't prepare the site itself, inVia simply provided Kantsu with the appropriate stickers along with instructions for posting them on walls throughout the DC.
InVia then shipped "an army" of nearly 100 AMRs to Japan, Elazary says. When the units arrived, the client simply opened the crates and freed the robots to "randomly walk around the warehouse" and create a digital map of the facility, he adds. Any problems that arose, such as warehouse workers loading overweight totes onto an AMR, were reported to inVia's robotics operations center (ROC), where technicians diagnosed solutions remotely.
Today, the system is up and running, with the Picker bots swiftly and efficiently selecting products and ferrying them around the facility. As demand and other operating conditions fluctuate, the integrated Logic software will automatically adjust the system's processes and paths accordingly.
A similar scene played out at the DHL Innovation Center in Troisdorf, Germany, this summer, only this time, it was Chelmsford, Massachusetts-based AutoGuide Mobile Robots whose installation plans were derailed by the pandemic. AutoGuide, which is owned by industrial automation specialist Teradyne Inc., makes autonomous pallet-handling stackers and tuggers that offer an alternative to traditional automated storage and retrieval systems for small and medium-sized warehouses. The company was scheduled to install both a stacker and a tugger at the DHL site when things started to unravel.
"We needed to fly an installation technician to Germany from the U.S. to install the vehicles. However, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, this was not possible, as he was denied departure at the airport," AutoGuide President and CEO Robert Sullivan said in a blog post.
In order to complete the project on time, AutoGuide turned to a local systems integrator, ST-IR, which is based in nearby Ingolstadt, Germany. Using wearable headsets from RealWear Inc., AutoGuide virtually taught ST-IR employees how to install an AutoGuide MAX-N Pallet Stacker and a MAX-N Tugger using equipment it had sent to an ST-IR facility. Armed with that knowledge, the integrator was able to complete the job at the DHL site on schedule, Sullivan said.
According to Jan Nicolay, AutoGuide's European sales director, the installation process went smoothly. "We learned how to use the technologies efficiently and also how to adjust communication when working with remote support," he said in an email.
AutoGuide has since used the headset technology in other installations, allowing the manufacturer to stay connected to customers despite travel bans. "This technology can be applicable for addressing issues that arise that require immediate attention where the necessary knowledge is remote but face-to-face contact with the customer—and the long-term relationship-building benefits that accompany those interactions—holds immense value to both parties," Nicolay said.
Staffers at DHL's innovation center agree, noting that the two companies were able to overcome the travel challenge through a combination of technology and local expertise. "Regarding the remote installation, it was a pretty straightforward exercise: Instead of their engineers, we used a local integrator and had one of their experts remotely supporting via laptop," a DHL spokesperson said via email. "They are currently [deploying] two of their robots here for an expected timeframe of one year."
Once found mostly in specialty applications and pilot projects, warehouse robots are fast becoming standard equipment in the modern e-commerce fulfillment center. But that newfound popularity also comes with some associated risks: The higher the number of deployments, the greater the likelihood that AMR vendors will face installation-related challenges. That's particularly true in an age when customers may be halfway around the world, and anything from politics to a pandemic can disrupt the flow of travel.
As a result, many robotics vendors are starting to design their machines with more than just fulfillment performance in mind. These days, they're also looking to build units that can roll into a site and get down to work without a lot of site prep or human supervision.