Co-founder and CTO
6 River Systems
SVP Innovation and Technology Development
Director of Customer Solutions
Advanced Handling Systems (AHS)
Thomas Evans, Ph.D.
Chief Technology Officer
Applications Engineering Manager
Senior Systems Application Engineer
Managing Director North America
Chief Operating Officer
Founder and CEO
Plus One Robotics
Business Development Manager
Dr. Nicola Tomatis
Q: How do you view the current state of the robotics industry?
Chris Cacioppo – 6 River Systems: The robotics industry is experiencing a boom as other verticals, including manufacturing and retail, are realizing the immense need for automating their processes. Efficiency is a major priority for every business, and without automating processes, it is difficult to reach business goals. Many may fear that "robots are taking jobs," when, in reality, most robots are enhancing jobs, allowing employees to focus their attention on more meaningful tasks.
Nick Longworth – SICK: The robotics industry is in a state of transition—and not only because of the Covid-19 virus. Even before the pandemic, there were major efforts underway to simplify the way people build, program, and interact with robots. Combine that simplified focus with the more advanced technology that is coming to market, and the result is an industry in transition. The robotics industry of the past 30 years will be much different from the industry we will see in the next 10 years.
Kristin Fornal – IAM Robotics: New opportunities continue to be identified for automation. This, combined with the rise of user adoption, is rapidly expanding the robotics industry. In the supply chain, robots are being used to help augment the labor force, increase productivity, reduce errors, optimize picking and sorting, and reduce the risk of employee injury in dangerous environments.
Steven Hogg – Bastian Solutions: Companies are focusing on stabilizing their workforce and supply chains by investing in proven robotic technologies. Investing in robotics reduces the number of workers required to meet their order fulfillment requirements. Also, robotic work cells provide a safe, socially distant work environment that is cleaner and more efficient to operate than a traditional operator workstation.
Erik Nieves – Plus One Robotics: 2020 was the first year that more robots were sold to non-automotive users than to automotive customers. This is a watershed moment, demonstrating that the massive growth in e-comm is driving robot adoption and warehouse automation. There has never been a more exciting time to be in robotics.
Q: What types of robotics projects are getting the most attention from end-users?
Jon Schechter – AutoStore: Attention and adoption are very different things. Goods-to-person robots and collaborative picking robots are seeing the most real traction. Other robots, such as piece-picking units, are getting a lot of attention but are not yet default technologies for large projects.
Nicola Tomatis – BlueBotics: For years, companies concentrated on implementing robotics projects in order to automate specific production processes. Today, however, there is a clear focus on extending automation programs to include material handling and logistics processes at either end of the production line.
Rudi Lueg – Exotec: Being in the goods-to-person space with a robotics solution, I can say there is a lot of buzz about microfulfillment centers. Shortening leadtimes and improving transportation cost burdens with these systems has customers re-evaluating their supply chain practices. And many are considering moving away from tech as modern as shuttle systems to achieve the flexibility and deployment benefits that robotics provide.
Thomas Evans – Honeywell Intelligrated: Robotics that augment or collaborate with laborers seem to be centric in this exceptional growth period we are witnessing in robotics and automation. Warehouses and distribution centers want to be able to replicate or surpass the throughput of manual induction or pick-and-sort activities in addition to being able to extend hours of operation or complete work with minimal supervision.
Q: How has the growth of microfulfillment centers impacted robotics, and how have robotics providers responded to those demands?
Mark Messina – Geek+: The microfulfillment center (MFC) is a greenspace that is part of the natural evolution of the delivery network in response to consumer demand for instant gratification. Driven largely by the push to shorten the delivery cycle, we see it expanding from retail goods to include grocery. The successful MFC is a combination of "invisible" hardware that respects the fulfillment center density requirements together with AI (artificial intelligence) software that can predict what items need to be occupying that very valuable, very local real estate. Ultimately, the industry responds to these challenges with great innovations in both the delivery hardware and the vision and picking systems.
Jon Schechter – AutoStore: We are seeing an increase in interest from retailers to meet the surge in "buy online/pick up in store" (BOPIS) demand. One driver of this interest is a response to decreasing traffic in stores, meaning, how to keep employees fulfilling online orders from crowding the aisles and getting in the way of in-store shoppers. Microfulfillment is all about doing more in less space to meet these consumer expectations. Robotic technologies are now able to scale down to fit within tiny footprints and low ceilings to leverage locations that were not viable before, while supporting high throughput for quick order fulfillment.
Kristin Fornal – IAM Robotics: Consumers will always demand more—more products and faster deliveries. We have already started seeing an increase in microfulfillment centers to help deliver on these consumer demands. In the past, more facilities meant more people to staff these facilities. Today, robotic solutions are able to help provide faster throughputs in microfulfillment centers and do not require hiring more employees for ordinary tasks such as picking.
Steven Hogg – Bastian Solutions: With the emergence of microfulfillment centers by major retailers and grocers, the requirement for robotics to expand their "labor" force, flexibility, and reliability is greater than ever. Traditional goods-to-person technologies are now transitioning to goods-to-robot workstations to ensure companies are achieving their key performance indicators (KPIs) like order fulfillment, productivity, system availability, and uptime. A robot improves the order fulfillment process by increasing order accuracy, reducing order cycle time to shipment, and achieving on-time delivery.
Nick Longworth – SICK: The challenge with microfulfillment centers is there is a high density of product stored in a small space such as a grocery store or shopping mall location. There are many challenges surrounding these centers, such as inventory control, cleaning, order picking, etc. It essentially represents a new application for robotics and has created a new channel within the industry for development and sales. It has allowed further research and development for robots that can safely interact with humans (potentially customers) throughout a store.
Q: In what ways do AI and machine learning impact robotic designs?
Thomas Evans – Honeywell Intelligrated: AI and machine learning are critical to robotic systems in the warehouse and DC space due to the variables in day-to-day activities, seasonal changes in packaging and volume, and end-users wanting to have an adaptable solution throughout variations while maintaining peak performance. Without AI and machine learning, the algorithms and systems deployed in DCs would constantly be applying solutions and decisions of the past to a problem faced in the present.
Steven Hogg – Bastian Solutions: AI allows the robotic system to learn and adapt to product state and variation. Multiple robots share the same software so they can learn from each other and improve together. With AI, the vision system is capable of handling high variation and processing as a human would. This will drive improvement and intelligence for all warehouse operations of the future.
Mark Messina – Geek+: AI and machine learning have great impact on the system and result in substantial performance gains. The battery life, number of chargers and workstations, and even the size and form of the binning are affected by the intelligence of the system. These things directly impact the value of the system in terms of real estate, density, maintenance, service, labor efficiency, etc.
Tim Criswell – Wynright: AI applications, especially in the area of 3D vision, have allowed engineers to solve complex data interpretation problems to provide robots with the real-time information they need to operate in the dynamic environment of distribution. Traditional approaches have required programmers to develop complex decision trees, which can work well for the normal operational flow but can be problematic when trying to account for every possible scenario and exception in an application.
Erik Nieves – Plus One Robotics: Previously, industrial automation consisted of machines performing the same repetitive task. Any substantive change to the process or workflow would require engineering effort to make the robot productive again. One of the principal benefits of AI is that it futureproofs the robot by making it capable of readily adapting to change. With AI, robots can get smarter, as machine learning enables them to adapt to the variability in the warehouse.
Q: What is being done to make today's robotics systems easier to integrate with other warehouse and automation systems?
Rudi Lueg – Exotec: I think modularity helps. In the case of goods-to-person applications, an intuitive, well-thought-out warehouse control system meshes well with most situations, along with assigning a single location for inventory vs. worrying about slotting. If you want to add robotic picking, it's a feature—and not something you have to build out from scratch.
Drew Eubank – AHS: At the operation level, the logistical challenges are generally simple to figure out when the right technologies are combined. The creation of software that allows for the easier flow of information between systems is a critical link between all automation systems, and with robotics, it may be more essential.
Nicola Tomatis – BlueBotics: Today's robotic technology is itself becoming simpler. Therefore, the real challenge now is less about understanding the technology and more about effectively matching this technology to the increasingly complex processes the customer wants to automate.
In order to easily integrate robotics systems, technology suppliers now need to provide not only simple technologies but also very clear and simple interfaces, whether hardware or software, in the form of application programming interfaces, or APIs.
Nick Longworth – SICK: Integration with existing warehouse and automation systems can relate to processes (and the people within them), facility design, ERP systems, etc. [My company] places a high emphasis on sensor solutions for navigation and safe operation in regard to working around the people, equipment, and obstacles in a facility. These are generally LiDAR solutions. In addition to that, there is development around sensor solutions that aid in the simulation of a facility's processes. These simulations help an industrial engineer identify and correct bottlenecks and deficiencies in processes.
Q: What kinds of growth and adoption rates do you anticipate for the industry over the next five years?
Drew Eubank – AHS: With the rise in organizations that are already integrating robotics into their operations, it is not farfetched to forecast that—to mathematically state it—six out of 10 of our customers will have incorporated some form of robotics into their operations in the next five years. Some will be simple AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) for goods movement, while others will have installed full-scale goods-to-person robotics systems.
Jon Schechter – AutoStore: In a perfect world, within five years no one will be subjected to walking aisles to fulfill orders from a paper picking slip.
However, it is likely to take longer for full adoption. MHI's 2019 survey showed 39% of companies would finally adopt robotics and automation, bringing the total users to 71%. The pandemic has altered the timeline, and the number is likely to be higher when the industry sees successful pandemic-accelerated use cases at major operations.
Tim Criswell – Wynright: With increasing demand for e-commerce and a shortage of available labor, operational costs continue to rise. With the continued refinement of complex applications and implementation of AI techniques, the costs of implementing more dynamic applications are coming down. This combination will drive the growth of applications such as piece-part bin picking or robotic truck unloading, which have limited implementations and have not experienced widespread adoption.
Kristin Fornal – IAM Robotics: With so many companies entering the market and in light of the flexibility mobile robots provide, the analyst firm Research and Markets reports the global AMR market is expected to see rapid progress this decade, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.3%.
Nicola Tomatis – BlueBotics: As the pandemic hopefully starts to wane, we expect growth and adoption rates to rebound strongly. In fact, recent market studies forecast that the growth of the mobile robotics market over the next five years will return to the levels predicted pre-Covid, meaning the pandemic's long-term impact on our market should be negligible.
Q: Is a lights-out and sustainable robotic operation a realistic possibility with the existing technology?
Kristin Fornal – IAM Robotics: Not yet. The technology still has a ways to go for an entirely automated lights-out operation because people are still able to adapt to their environments faster than robots can. For example, if the way a task is completed needs to change, people are able to quickly receive and comprehend the new instructions to change their "programming" to effectively complete the task. In order for the robot to change how it performs the task, it needs to be reprogrammed to process the new way to complete the task. The concept of a lights-out, sustainable robotic operation is appealing; however, robots are machines, and machines break down.
Mark Messina – Geek+: Not with existing technology, but give it a few years. This will need to affect the product packaging as well as the general fulfillment center system design.
Thomas Evans – Honeywell Intelligrated: I believe individual components and subsystems are advancing quickly to a point where the "lights out" or "dark warehouse" is coming closer and closer to reality. The full solution is not yet in place, but a robotics company with warehouse execution system software, mobility robotics, pick-and-place robotics, digitalization throughout the physical and operational spaces, and advanced automation expertise to integrate multiple warehouse and DC control systems is favorably positioned to bring a "lights out" solution to the market.
Jon Schechter – AutoStore: The term lights-out is somewhat of a misnomer; automation is more of a spectrum. While mundane parts of the work, such as travel time, are eliminated with automation, there remains valuable cognitive work for associates. Robots cannot resolve exceptions, handle 100% of items, or ensure perfect orders. Robotic investments should be thought of as a tool for associates. In the same way fork trucks are used for pallets, goods-to-person robotics enables people to fulfill orders much faster and more ergonomically.
Tim Criswell – Wynright: True "lights out" operation, where human intervention is never required, is not currently practical and will not be anytime soon. However, "touchless" operation, where humans only intervene for exceptions and errors, is achievable with existing, leading-edge technology.
Erik Nieves – Plus One Robotics: The answer to this question pivots on the variability the robot will experience. If the robot will be picking the same SKU (stock-keeping unit) from an ordered or known location, then a lights-out operation is straightforward and the robot will run independently. But most warehouse operations see much more variability than that, and that variability exceeds the automation's capacity to keep up. The only way to have these applications be "lights out" is to add a remote human to the loop.
Q: What is being done to help train workers to work with and direct robots?
Chris Cacioppo – 6 River Systems: As fulfillment centers continue incorporating automation into their operations, it's increasingly important for leaders to prioritize proper training for employees. For new hires and seasonal labor, training on how to work with robotic automation should be a key component of the onboarding process. Implementing refresher training on a recurring basis is another best practice for fulfillment centers.
Nicola Tomatis – BlueBotics: Having well-trained staff on-site is fundamental to the success of any automation program, even more so in the case of mobile robotics such as automated guided vehicles. Staff must understand the role of this technology, accept it, and know how to work alongside it in order to ensure its efficiency can be maximized. That's why we work so closely with our vehicle-maker customers, to ensure they have the knowledge needed to fully train their clients—the end AGV users—on the technology and how to work with it.
Drew Eubank – AHS: There are two things that [my company] requires for the integration of a robotic and human workforce. First is hands-on training with the robots so that teammates understand the capabilities, the scope of the problem being solved, and, in general, how the robot supplements the work being done to make everyone more successful. The second is finding ways to make a robot more relatable through interaction—whether that is having the workforce name the robots, decorate the robots, play music through the robots, or even put a potato-head–like face on the robot. Ensuring that the team understands that the robot is a tool for success and not a threat is essential.
Erik Nieves – Plus One Robotics: Robots perform dull, dirty, and dangerous work, and employees must be equipped to deliver effectively in their roles. It's also an opportunity for workers to upskill and develop, as they move to more value-adding positions in the warehouse. Critical-thinking and process skills are imperative, as are role-related skills. For example, when recruiting "crew chiefs," the robot supervisors that manage teams of robots, we look for people with e-sports and gaming skills. We find gamers are particularly adept at quickly responding to robots' calls for help when they encounter an exception such as a new SKU or packaging type.
Q: Are there any unique designs or applications on the drawing board that you think we'll see in the near future?
Jon Schechter – AutoStore: To date, each robotic system is an island interconnected by people or traditional automation. The first robot-to-robot applications are starting to be proven—the so-called "Goods2Robot" and even a robotic automated storage and retrieval system with a picking robot feeding a robotic sorter. These applications push toward a lights-out scenario; however, they are still limited to handling a subset of the SKUs.
Drew Eubank – AHS: Automatic packaging—and being intelligent enough to understand exceptions during the pack-out process—has fascinating possibilities in what has been, to this point, extremely manual in most distribution operations. With the increased capabilities of robotic arms and placement devices, we feel that a robust, scalable, and commercially viable option will be available in the near future.
Nicola Tomatis – BlueBotics: What we see in the mobile robotics market is that automated-vehicle buyers are struggling to find the different types of vehicles they need, which can then work together seamlessly in an integrated fleet (without requiring, for example, different AGV management platforms). As a result, there is a definite move in the market to develop generic platforms on which different vehicle types can run.
Chris Cacioppo – 6 River Systems: I think as we move more toward omnichannel and BOPAC (buy online/pick up at curbside), we will see some of the automation technologies that are used in warehouses migrate toward retail stores—in both back-of-store and, possibly, in-aisle applications. As the fulfillment demands on retail stores grow, we will see in-store automation grow to help them meet demand.
Erik Nieves – Plus One Robotics: End-effectors (grippers) are an area that we see as ripe for innovation. Again, given the variability of materials that robots need to handle daily, grippers need to pick up and place a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures. I believe we'll see gripper technology evolve to tackle the ever-increasing range of SKUs that robots encounter.