In the past decades, the use of robotics has been growing rapidly in many industry sectors. Automotive in particular has been using robots since the 1970’s. The logistics sector, however, is relatively late to the table when it comes to robotics. The majority of warehouses still use very little automation and employ human pickers to retrieve items from the shelves manually. However, robotics trends have been developing in the logistics sector lately and progress is being made. This blog discusses the use of robotics in logistics, as well as recent trends and developments.
Logistics automation so far
During the past decades, automation in logistics has mostly been limited to automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/AR). These systems typically transport items in standardized containers from defined storage locations. Although some robotics solutions have been developed for AS/AR recently, e.g. the Amazon Kiva system, most automated warehouses use lifts and shuttles that cannot really be called robots. Whilst such systems are available, the majority of warehouses use little automation and still rely on human employees to do the work, even though personnel shortages and the ever increasing and changing demand result in many challenges.
Why has the use of robotics in logistics been so low? There are two main reasons:
- Money: installing an AS/RS system is an ‘all or nothing’ solution. Existing warehouses cannot easily be automated. It takes a huge investment to build a new warehouse and the current lay-out of an existing warehouse often does not allow for an AS/RS system to be installed due to space issues.
- Technology: most automated warehouses use a ‘goods-to-man’ system that transports items in standardized containers to a picking station. This is, however, often where the automation ends. Usually, a human picker is still needed to actually pick individual items from the container.
Recent logistics robotics developments
Should we just give up and accept the fact that full automation for logistics is too hard? Obviously not. In the past years, many organizations have been actively trying to crack this market. For example, Amazon tried to get the ball rolling by starting a picking challenge in 2015 to let teams develop a system that could handle individual items. Even Boston Dynamics recently produced a video to promote their rather cool but unpractical robots for logistics. Most notably, many new and old logistics automation organizations have been promoting their solution for picking individual items. These solutions have already been implemented in several warehouses. Examples of these robotics solutions (click to watch videos):
With innovations in gripper developments and technologies such as deep learning (which is a term that is very much hyped, but is really applicable for logistics robotics developments), it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ robotic pickers become the new standard in automated warehouses.
Flexibility is key
With the latest innovations that allow robots to handle individual items, we are not far off from warehouses with automated goods-to-man systems where the ‘man’ is replaced with a robot picking the order from a container. Although this is a big step towards a fully automated warehouse with no human employees, it has a big disadvantage. The goods-to-robot systems still require large investments and a lot of hardware. They are also not very flexible, in the sense than changing the size and lay-out of the warehouse is not really an option. In addition, when implementing such a system, the warehouse needs to be shut-down for some time which is usually not possible. The logistics market has to deal with quickly changing demands. Hence, flexibility is not a luxury, but a key requirement.
Trend: mobile robotics solutions
Because flexibility is so important, we see the first developments towards a different paradigm: robot-to-goods instead of goods-to-robot. Items are not transported to a robot picker, but a robot picker on a mobile base is driving around the warehouse and picks items directly.
Mobile robot pickers are more in line with how traditional warehouses operate. The only difference is that the work once done by human pickers is now done by robot pickers. What appeals to these robot-to-goods solutions is that implementing them only requires very little changes to existing warehouses. All you need to do is send in a fleet of smart mobile picker robots and give them orders to pick. Of course, it is not as simple as that. However, there are several organizations who believe in this approach, e.g. I Am Robotics in the United States and Magazino in Europe.
A positive future for logistics
These recent developments show that the use of robotics in the logistics sector is increasing. For warehouses, robotics solutions can offer many advantages and possibilities for the future. Warehouses often struggle with the ever increasing demand as well as larger variations in product series. In addition, personnel shortages create even more challenges. Flexible automation solutions such as (mobile) item picking robots can tackle these challenges and create a positive future for the logistics sector.