Steven Hogg, Manager of Solutions Development & Data Analytics, Bastian Solutions
Thomas Meyer-Jander, Chief Marketing Officer, Movu Robotics (Stow Group)
Brian Pulfer, Manager of Solutions Development & Data Analytics, Vargo
Kevin Reader, Vice President of Marketing, Knapp
Q: What is the current state of the robotics industry?
Kevin Reader – Knapp: There is considerable growth projected for the robotics industry—17.64% globally, from $114.7B annually in 2023 to a projected $258.3B in 2028. The largest market is the Asian Pacific market, and the fastest growing market is the North American market. The International Federation of Robotics reported that the demand for robots was primarily fueled by investments in new car production facilities and the modernization of industrial facilities.
More appropriate, perhaps, is the question “What is a robot?” since the term has been overused by venture capital companies and marketing departments, and has come to represent an array of technologies, from goods-to-person to AMR [autonomous mobile robot]-type devices, that are more specialized and more appropriately termed “transport application devices.”
Brian Pulfer – Vargo: The robotics industry still seems to be in growth mode, and I believe that growth is on two fronts. First, the number of deployments of robotics projects is continually increasing within the distribution and warehousing vertical. Second, the R&D [research and development] work for new types of robotic solutions is leading to the introduction of options for many different facets of operations. There are a few robotics offerings that have become mature and trusted deployments such as AMRs, while there are other offerings that are still developing, depending on the application of the technology.
Thomas Meyer-Jander – Movu: While some areas of the logistics industry are in a phase of consolidation, we continue to see strong demand for robotics solutions. This is confirmed by current market research, which predicts annual growth of almost 20%. The demand for robotic solutions, especially for easier, scalable, and flexible plug-and-play solutions, was one of the reasons why the Stow Group launched the new brand “Movu Robotics” worldwide in September.
Q: How has the recent slowing in warehouse investments affected new automation projects?
Steven Hogg – Bastian: We are seeing that fixed warehouse automation solutions are slowing as retailers and manufacturers grapple with capital expenditure limitations. This has led to a growing appetite for scalable technologies like mobile automation, which come in at a price point under $20 million. These offer swift deployment and a rapid return on investment.
Thomas Meyer-Jander – Movu: Our experience has shown that the economic downturn has had no immediate impact on current robotics tenders or projects. In individual cases, the decision-making process on the part of the customer is delayed and more concrete TCO [total cost of ownership] calculations are made.
Brian Pulfer – Vargo: There has definitely been a recent impact on the industry from an economic standpoint, but I believe that there is still an appetite for robotics due to the labor situation in certain areas of the warehouse and in certain regions of the country.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: Not much. Unemployment is still at record lows, and labor availability continues to be a strong decision driver. Investment in new technology is still driven by the same CAPEX [capital expenditure] rules that have applied for decades, except that if companies can’t meet growth and shipment goals, they tend to automate more quickly and at a more aggressive pace than in the past.
Q: For companies just beginning their automation journey, what are the easiest operations to automate?
Steven Hogg – Bastian: The easiest operations to automate are the monotonous, hard-to-staff processes that don’t require dynamic decision-making. By employing automation, companies can reassign employees to more challenging tasks, improving employee safety and job satisfaction. Automating these operations improves the bottom line in obvious ways, like reducing production costs, but also in less-apparent ways, such as reducing the time and resources spent onboarding new and seasonal employees.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: The easiest operations to automate are those that include manufacturing and repetitive tasks. Second are those that include labor-intensive tasks. If we are talking about robotics that must address the “tasks of the hands,” these are more difficult to automate, and there are few examples of these projects being executed well.
Thomas Meyer-Jander – Movu: When considering robotics applications for warehouses, it's important to start with a thorough assessment of specific needs, the project’s budget, and the complexity of the tasks that are being considered for automation. Customers who want to enter into automation often require standardized solutions with short installation times and seamless integration into existing systems. According to our experiences, AMR solutions for picking and shuttle systems for bins or pallets are particularly suitable for operations seeking an easy entry with a manageable level of resources.
Brian Pulfer – Vargo: When considering all the silos of activity within the warehouse, I believe the easiest area to attack is the transitory elements. The distance traveled and overall steps of a warehouse associate are very significant when considering productivity. The ability to reduce this element has a large impact from a budgetary standpoint for any operation.
Q: Does a move to automation change the level of skills needed for workers who must interact with the new systems?
Brian Pulfer – Vargo: I do not believe that it has a significant impact on the skills needed. When many of these technologies are being considered, you hear the term “cobot” or “helper” being utilized as these systems really provide assistance to the current associates. Most warehouse associates over the last 10 to 20 years have become very familiar dealing with conveyors, RF (radio-frequency) devices, tablets, etc., and a lot of these robotic solutions are utilizing similar applications—and in many cases, are even simplifying the interaction between the associate and the system. In today’s world, almost everyone is comfortable with most of these technologies in their personal lives, which translates to the warehouse.
Thomas Meyer-Jander – Movu: Of course, the introduction of automation technologies expands the range of tasks for the workers. It is then less about directly carrying out the picking or storage process than about controlling and monitoring the automation—in some ways, a collaboration between man and machine. In particular, the physical strain on the worker is reduced, which improves working conditions and reduces the susceptibility to errors. The ergonomic factor at the workplace also plays an important role in automation.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: There are considerable and new skills required of those who must maintain this new robotic technology. If you consider that 85% of software is dedicated to error handling and diagnostics, partnering with an experienced supplier also becomes a critical factor. You also cannot look at a robot as a standalone application, as it touches many upstream and downstream applications.
Steven Hogg – Bastian: Currently, one of the primary hurdles companies encounter is recruiting and retaining skilled employees. Over the past few years, there has been a 15% uptick in the number of organizations dedicating resources to upskilling and reskilling initiatives. Among these, 41% are prioritizing efforts to equip their workforce for the emerging-tech-driven roles in the supply chain sector.
Q: How are artificial intelligence and machine learning impacting robotics design and operations?
Thomas Meyer-Jander – Movu: Artificial intelligence (AI) is having a significant impact on the future of warehouse logistics by revolutionizing how operations are managed and optimized. There are several ways in which AI is influencing and shaping the future of warehouse logistics—for example, optimized inventory management, smart predictive maintenance, route optimization, picking and packing optimization, and quality control. Overall, AI is transforming warehouse logistics by increasing efficiency, reducing costs, improving accuracy, and enhancing the customer experience.
As AI technologies continue to advance, we can expect even greater innovations and improvements in the management and automation of warehouse operations, making them more adaptable and responsive to the evolving demands of the supply chain.
Steven Hogg – Bastian: Artificial intelligence allows for greater autonomy in the operation and improves the robot’s recognition and adaptability, which allows for a wider range of products to be handled by automation. This flexibility is critical for a system design that requires a vision system to handle thousands of SKUs (stock-keeping units) in an e-commerce setting or in distribution centers.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: Particularly with the “tasks of the hands,” artificial intelligence has a major impact on the success of robotic applications and is especially important when considering the success of a prototype or test application.
Brian Pulfer – Vargo: It is becoming more and more of a part of the process. There have been continuous advancements on multiple fronts—like product recognition and then how the machine reacts—that are reducing the need for human intervention, which is streamlining the process and boosting overall efficiency.
Q: How does staff training need to be adjusted for associates who will work with today’s robotic systems?
Steven Hogg – Bastian: An often-overlooked factor that significantly impacts a new automated system’s success is employee acceptance and utilization. In staff training sessions, it’s crucial to explain how automation will benefit employees and share plans for repurposed roles. Opening lines of communication with operators enables them to provide feedback on workflows, leading to improved utilization and ROI [return on investment].
Thomas Meyer-Jander – Movu: Despite automation technology, employees remain a company’s most important asset. As innovation continues, employees need regular training to keep up. Training staff to apply innovations and new technologies is a strategic investment that can result in improved efficiency, competitiveness, employee satisfaction, and overall business success. It enables successful companies to harness the full potential of technological advancements and adapt to the ever-changing business landscape.
Brian Pulfer – Vargo: I do not believe that it needs to be adjusted significantly, but what we are seeing more and more is the use of technology in training, which is a significant development. The use of interactive software, virtual reality, etc., in training is helping associates become comfortable with the technology before they ever hit the warehouse floor and start to engage with the robotic solution.
Q: With more automation being implemented every year, what will distribution centers look like 10 years from now?
Thomas Meyer-Jander – Movu: The distribution center will likely undergo further significant transformations over the next 10 years driven by advancements in technology, automation, and evolving supply chain demands. Automation will play a central role, with a wide range of tasks being performed by robots, autonomous vehicles, and other automated systems. Robots, both large and small, will collaborate with human workers in a more integrated manner. Collaborative robots will work alongside humans, enhancing efficiency and safety. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will be used extensively to optimize warehouse operations, and AI algorithms will manage inventory. Autonomous vehicles will move goods within the warehouse, and drones will probably be used for aerial inventory scans and monitoring. Sustainable practices will be a priority. In addition, some warehouses may incorporate 3D printing capabilities to produce spare parts on-site.
Kevin Reader – Knapp: Applications will be simplified, and there will be fewer applications to deal with. Software will take on a more important role, vis-à-vis flexibility, the ability to change, overall operations, and the results that can be achieved. There will also be a proliferation of AI tools to manage operations and resources.
Brian Pulfer – Vargo: That is a very interesting question, and I wish I had a crystal ball, but obviously no one does. In my opinion, there are opportunities for continued advancements, and those are being pursued by many organizations. I know that our Vargo team is continuing to pursue implementing environments that utilize any and all robotic opportunities to streamline each solution that we evaluate, and I think that we will see robotics and automation applied to solutions that will result in significant growth from a productivity and efficiency standpoint.Steven Hogg – Bastian: With the advances in AI, machine learning, and vision systems, additional opportunities for robotic automation in distribution centers continue to evolve. These technological advances will drive continued growth in DCs, with most of the core material handling operations managed by robotic automation.