Robotics and automation have never been hotter. And it’s not hard to see why. Squeezed by the ongoing e-commerce boom and a nationwide labor crunch, companies are finding they need these technologies to boost fulfillment speed and accuracy at a time when adding people is no longer an option.
To learn more about the current state of the robotics market as well as what lies ahead, DC Velocity Group Editorial Director David Maloney gathered experts from companies that participated in DC Velocity’s Robotics Forum at the recent Modex show for a freewheeling discussion. Among the topics we address in Part Two (Part One ran in our April issue) are the role of “cobots” in fulfillment operations, what manufacturers are doing to extend system run times, and what tomorrow’s robots will look like.
Bruce Bleikamp, Director of Product Management, MHS
Josh Cloer, Director of Sales, Mujin
Lior Elazary, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, inVia Robotics
Carlos Fernández, Chief Product Officer, AutoStore
Fergal Glynn, Vice President of Marketing, 6 River Systems
Dan Hanrahan, CEO and Owner, Numina Group
Erik Nieves, CEO and Co-Founder, Plus One Robotics
Brian Reinhart, Vice President of Sales, HAI Robotics
Saif Sabti, Vice President of Business Development and Strategy, SSI Schaefer
Q: What do you consider to be the most significant advances in robotics technology within the past five years?
Lior Elazary – inVia: Robotics technology has come a long way in the last five years. Robotic systems are getting more intelligent and adaptive, and the technology is becoming more precise, allowing for more tasks to be automated. At the same time, ongoing improvements in battery and motor technology have driven costs down, allowing for the adoption of robotic systems that provide a very strong ROI (return on investment) for warehouse operators. As a result, robotics can now be implemented across companies of all sizes.
Erik Nieves – Plus One Robotics: Computer vision is what’s driven adoption in the last five years. It’s what didn’t exist before—the fact that robots can deal with less-than-structured environments and still be successful. We as humans have 3D vision, two hands, and coordination. So, if robots are going to be successful in these applications, then it’s going to take that same sort of capacity in 3D vision—being able to sort, see, recognize, classify, and find objects in front of you. [This capability] is allowing for new applications for automation that would otherwise not be possible.
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: Robotics have become smarter, more flexible, and more collaborative. Software advancements, coupled with AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning, have made it easier to leverage operational data for real-time optimization and continuous improvement. Along with that, robotics hardware has evolved to be more nimble and adaptable, making robots easier to deploy across a wide range of environments.
Combined, those advancements have made it easier for robots to not only work alongside people, but also to help make those people and operations more efficient, productive, and safe.
Dan Hanrahan – Numina Group: AMRs have gone from a novelty to a proven warehouse automation technology. Customers are interested in exploring the use of robotic technologies due to the reliability [these systems have demonstrated in] use cases at Amazon and other large corporations, and now, at numerous small businesses.
Josh Cloer – Mujin: Over the past five years, robots have been given a new lens with which they can view the world. Machine vision has been around for a long time, but the latest technology—the technology that has emerged in the last five years—is certainly empowering robots to do more than ever before. The ability to digitize a large area with a large depth of field has given robots the ability to manage tasks that were previously very difficult and costly. 3D vision is one of the most critical advancements in robotics technologies because it is allowing robotics to take on some of the more variable tasks within logistics environments.
Q: What types of robots are currently in most demand for warehouse applications?
Brian Reinhart – HAI: All of them. Jokes aside, it really is any and all types of robots and really any type of automation that can help ease the burden of labor. The current labor shortages, taken together with increased customer demands regarding order time and accuracy, have placed immense pressure on warehouses and DCs. Traditional robots, advanced robots, industrial robots, and collaborative robots are all in high demand.
Lior Elazary – inVia: The impact of Covid-19 on consumer behavior, specifically the e-commerce boom, has made streamlining fulfillment center operations a top priority and has fueled the demand for goods-to-person automation. Smaller e-commerce brands, especially, feel the pressure to deliver quickly and on time to keep up with larger retailers. We see more and more 3PLs who handle their fulfillment needs turning to automation solutions. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) help solve today’s warehousing challenges. They are small and nimble and operate nonstop to fulfill orders with machine precision.
Carlos Fernández – AutoStore: Goods-to-person robotics has reached a level of maturity, creating high demand across all segments. That’s why there are many solutions and integrators on the market, and why delivery times to end-customers remain high. Demand for AMRs is still on the rise as well. This is definitely a trend that will continue due to the low entry barriers.
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are in high demand due to their fast return on investment and easy implementation and integration into existing warehouse layouts. They require no costly or time-consuming warehouse infrastructure updates. In addition to the benefits of increased productivity, ease of associate training, and growing influence on associate recruiting and retention, AMRs also introduce unprecedented flexibility. Robots can be rented to support seasonal peaks and can be relocated within or across fulfillment locations to meet spikes in demand.
Bruce Bleikamp – MHS: Six-axis robots can deliver productive labor-saving solutions for picking parts, cases, or layers. Linking robotic operations across the distribution center is possible with low-cost AMRs, further enhancing ROI and labor savings, and making wider adoption of robots possible. An example is an application where robotic palletizing is linked to a common stretch wrapper using AMRs.
Dan Hanrahan – Numina Group: We are seeing an interest in robotic automation for the following applications: picking, order movement, product transport, increasing storage density, and automated sortation. As an independent systems integrator, we look at what blend of technologies can generate a two- to three-year ROI through labor reduction and efficiency gains, and also provide a solution that is modular and scalable. AMR-based solutions check all the boxes. Robotics solutions are easily adapted to changing business requirements and can be picked up and moved much more easily than conveyor if a customer outgrows its facility.
Josh Cloer – Mujin: The biggest demand we’re seeing is for robotic palletizing and depalletizing systems that can manage variability and mixed-case scenarios, while collaborating with other automated systems to really improve operations. There’s also a huge need to automate the order fulfillment process for both e-commerce and traditional retail operations.
Q: How has the use of collaborative robots (cobots) affected productivity within distribution facilities?
Carlos Fernández – AutoStore: Human beings are and will continue to be a vital part of warehouse operations. In order to have an efficient working environment for both, people and bots need to collaborate well, or at least co-exist and adapt to each other. The benefit in terms of productivity is that bots can take on the tedious and repetitive tasks, so humans can focus on optimizing processes or other more complex duties. For this reason, bots also enable organizations to achieve much higher productivity while providing a better work environment for employees, leading to higher employee satisfaction and retention rates.
Erik Nieves – Plus One Robotics: Collaborative robots started out as robots that were safe to be around. That’s great—they are important and have a role to play in warehouses and distribution centers. But they are also limited.
Then the operations team says, “Hey, can it go any faster?” The answer is, “Yes, it can, if you take it out and put an industrial robot in its place.” That means you’ll need to put up a cage or a safety scanner of some type, but you will get your [target throughput] rates.
So, do collaborative robots have a role to play? Absolutely. There will be some instances where they are the best answer long term for certain applications. But I would argue that that’s the minority of cases. Effectively, cobots are a gateway drug to industrial robots in the warehouse.
Saif Sabti – SSI Schaefer: With cobots, we’re basically looking at robotic components that were meant to boost labor productivity within a distribution center. However, this still needs work. These still need to be heavily guarded and require longer training periods.
I see this perhaps going a bit further with more innovation—but for today, analysis suggests that productivity actually goes down with cobots.
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: Cobots augment the work of associates, helping them to work more efficiently and accurately, while eliminating much of the work that can take a physical toll on humans. Warehouse associates push and pull a lot of weight across long distances. That impacts productivity, health and safety, and ultimately an operation’s ability to quickly ramp up to meet demand.
Josh Cloer – Mujin: Collaborative robots are a great tool for the right applications. For instance, cobots make sense anywhere that is space-constrained or where an application can be partially automated but still requires the human touch. As with any application, it is about finding the right tool for the job, and warehouse managers have more options today than ever before.
Q: What is being done to make robots easier to repair and to extend their uptime?
Brian Reinhart – HAI: Like any technology, as it evolves, it becomes more durable and predictable. Single points of failure have been engineered out of most technology platforms by now. On-board diagnostics can help predict when an electrical or mechanical component may be nearing failure. Robotic equipment has moved from a reactive maintenance and repair position to a proactive one, where we identify and resolve issues before they occur.
Lior Elazary – inVia: Advances in smart systems allow for physical calibration via software so that the physical system doesn’t need to be complex or have extremely tight tolerances.
Saif Sabti – SSI Schaefer: Battery life is the biggest issue with uptime. As this technology improves, uptime will also increase. As for repair, I think we’re looking at more preventive maintenance from data history. The more information and historical data we have, the more operations and customer service will know when something is about to go offline. This will help with planning maintenance and avoiding lost productivity.
Fergal Glynn – 6 River Systems: Cloud-based software supports both repair and uptime with warehouse and fulfillment robotics. Through software-based insights, you can monitor activity of the robot for anomalies, more easily diagnose issues, and proactively address maintenance before it impacts your operation. Specific to uptime, a robot can also be configured to automatically seek out a charger when its battery hits a certain level and then auto-charge before being deployed back out to the warehouse floor.
Bruce Bleikamp – MHS: Good system design from the early stages of a project can significantly improve system uptime. Advancements have been made with item recognition and the algorithms that are used for both item pick and placement strategies. The use of item dimensional data, coupled with intelligent algorithms that allow a more “dynamic” approach to grasping cases or items, allows for error recovery in ways previously not available.
Dan Hanrahan – Numina Group: Built-in on-board diagnostics and quick disconnect wiring harnesses with modular components are becoming a prerequisite for customers. AMRs need to have easily swappable components that can be serviced by an in-house technician or a local forklift dealer.
Q: What will robotics look like by the end of the decade?
Josh Cloer – Mujin: By 2030, robotics will no longer need to be programmed for each application. An end-user or integrator can simply choose the type of application and the appropriate hardware, and build the robot cell. From there, giving the robotics platform high-level goals and targets will be enough to deploy the system with production-level reliability.
The trends in interoperability will allow for robot arms and auxiliary material handling solutions to be integrated seamlessly without the need for bespoke software integrations, and fully autonomous warehouses and distribution centers will become commonplace.
Saif Sabti – SSI Schaefer: We’re already starting to see concepts of partial dark stores. While we’re still a few years away from a complete dark store, I believe we’ll eventually have the same for distribution centers—or at least, we’ll have “one to many” operations. Today, if a retailer or manufacturer has multiple distribution locations to run, it must have labor to support each location. I think within the next decade, we’re looking at having one centralized labor pool that will help run everything automatically from one location. There may be a very streamlined labor pool to deal with maintenance, but for the most part, you’re looking at the majority of items being picked, packed, shipped, and validated remotely.
Brian Reinhart – HAI: When a technology is evolving as quickly as robotics is, projection is always difficult. Some things to look for will be the combination of industrial and collaborative platforms, the adoption and evolution of AI, and improvements in self-monitoring and diagnostics aboard the platforms. One thing is for sure: Whichever direction the technology heads in, it will result in a reduction in labor [requirements] and cost, and improvements in performance.
Carlos Fernández – AutoStore: Robots will still keep certain roles, meaning there won’t be human-like robots capable of doing every possible job in a warehouse. But they’ll be a lot better at the tasks they’re designed to do and will be more specialized. Advanced AI will also help these technologies make better decisions.
Bruce Bleikamp – MHS: They’ll be better and possibly faster, and they’ll fit into more applications. The big changes will be in the tooling and controls surrounding the robot. We’ll see increased adoption of robots simply because of labor shortages.
We will also see robots with expanded roles in parts and case picking. We will see robots packing boxes for customer orders, including closing and labeling the boxes. So, we will see new roles, much broader application across existing roles, and adoption by more clients that at one time felt automation was only for the big companies. But it’s really for everybody.
Erik Nieves – Plus One Robotics: Culturally, we’re going to be past the whole “robots versus jobs” argument and the “Terminator” pop-culture view of robots by that time. Let’s be clear that this is an American phenomenon. If you go to Japan or Korea, nobody is afraid of robots—in part, because from the time you were a little kid, you’ve grown up with “robot boy.” He’s your hero; he’s your friend.
We grew up with Terminator. So, culturally we have a different view that’s also a generational thing. That’s going to be over and done with in 10 years, and that means we’re going to be deploying robots at a scale that’s dwarfing anything we see today.