Robotics and automation are playing a greater role in distribution than ever before, as supply chain professionals strive to boost efficiency and keep pace with escalating fulfillment demands. So what lies ahead for the industry? DC Velocity Group Editorial Director David Maloney recently gathered five experts from MHI’s Conveyor and Sortation Systems Industry Group to get some answers and find out what the future holds for the automation and robotics markets.
Q: Automation and robotics are red hot right now. Often, these terms are used almost interchangeably. How do you define automation and robotics as they apply to our industry?
Satyen Pathak – Designed Conveyor Systems: We do see a big difference between automation, being kind of the conventional part, and robotics, being the new art. I typically differentiate between the two by asking, How much autonomy is there? How much can it make its own decisions? That is how I distinguish between standard automation and the new robotics. We call it “cognitive robotics,” where the robots take over the decision-making, the reasoning, and so forth. That is kind of the new age, but there is kind of a blend over, and you can’t really draw a line between them.
Doug Schuchart – Beckhoff Automation: You may be limiting yourself if you think robotics is just like conveyors and sortation. It is another tool in the toolbox for automated systems. Often, robotics is working with something else. It is rare that it is just a completely stand-alone robot for an automated solution. Another way to think about it is how to blend the right mix of technologies and the new technologies that are coming at us every day.
Q: Traditionally, conveyor systems have been the go-to technology for fixed-path movement of products. Now, we have autonomous mobile robots that can perform similar tasks. Does the conveyor industry see AMRs and other robotics as a threat or as a complementary technology?
Markus Winkler – TGW: We don’t really consider it a threat. I think it is a great opportunity. I see it as something that is adding to our competencies. We are fortunate to understand these new technologies and apply them correctly to our advantage.
Tim Kraus – Intralox: The way we try to think about it is that we know that there are certain applications where a robotics solution offers a clear advantage over conveyors, sorters, or automated singulators. We try to think about how can we augment that: How can we make that work better, work faster, and work more reliably? Is there something we can do to present items to a robot to make it much more efficient and help the total solution?
Q: The pandemic-fueled e-commerce explosion has boosted demand for systems that handle parcels and smaller items. Is that affecting the types of conveyors your customers are choosing?
Jeff Brown – Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc.: Absolutely, we see that. Everything used to be a full case. Now, it is not only moving the individual items but also factoring in the wide range of packaging that the items may come in. In addition to boxes, there are now different types of polybags that have added to the challenge. We see air-filled bags, poly, and paper envelopes. All of those things add to the mix—it is not just the item size, but how is it packaged and how that affects what the conveyor solution should look like. [Customers] are not necessarily specifying rollers or belts, but they want a solution that is going to minimize downtime and will keep up with throughput demands without package damage.
Doug Schuchart – Beckhoff Automation: We are also seeing grocery and pharmaceuticals now being handled more in e-commerce fulfillment. So, we have to accommodate an even wider spectrum of product types, along with handling requirements that differ from what we’ve seen in the traditional retail space. That expands the types of automated equipment that may be required, and that is playing into some of the equipment innovations we see in the marketplace.
Q: How have conveyor installations changed over the years, and is it easier to integrate them with robotics and other types of automation than it might have been in the past?
Markus Winkler – TGW: I think the big challenge is we need to make conveyors much, much easier and quicker to install. They are more like an integrated product. It is the power supply. It is the communication. It is the logic that comes with the conveyor, and it is the package. That is definitely driven by the changes that our customers are seeing. Now, we are challenged with implementing large integrated systems within months when before it was probably years. That is where all those modular designs come into play.
Q: The rising cost of labor is one of the main reasons why people are turning to automation. As those costs continue to rise, do you feel this will help bolster the case for automation?
Satyen Pathak – Designed Conveyor Systems: We are in a unique time in that we are coming out of a pandemic and wages are rising in order to get people to come back to work. I believe automation is in a constant change cycle. I still think robotics has a long way to go before it’s considered a tried and trusted traditional technology, the way crossbelt sorters and line sorters are. It is in its infancy. But I do see robotics growing at a higher rate.
Q: Conveyor companies are more than simply hardware suppliers. They see themselves as solution providers. How do you approach implementing these new technologies—the sensors, the IoT, the vision systems, robotics, and other kinds of automation—with the conveyors and sorters you manufacture?
Tim Kraus – Intralox: Companies have to evolve to think about the total solution. If you are just thinking about building the conveyor itself, you are going to miss what else is out there. How does it integrate? Where does it best fit? How does it work with other technologies? The whole industry naturally has to shift in that way to make sure that the solution is relevant and that it can be coupled with the right things to create a great system for our customer.
Jeff Brown – Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc.: Customers nowadays are not just looking for a brand. They are looking for a solution that is going to meet their needs now and in the future. There used to be conveyor companies that had just their material handling equipment and you felt an obligation as a customer to keep it all one brand. But as customers evolve and they learn about technology and what is available in the marketplace, they look at what is going to be the best solution for their company and their operations.