Robots in the warehouse

Published: Thursday, February 22, 2018

Robots in the warehouse

To even the casual observer, robots obviously are becoming quite popular if you read anything on the internet or any news about robotic technology. In the context of warehouse automation, applications of robotic technology are appealing for the reasons of speed and accuracy.

When we combine the two, as is evident especially in e-Commerce, there is a tremendous growth in the number of orders and in the amount of volume that is being pushed out by DCs (Distribution Centres). We also have the reliability factor. Robots are always there, every day. They don't call in sick. They can work 24 hours a day, and that lends itself obviously to a fear factor. Are robots going to replace people in the workforce?

There is also an issue of availability of labour, so robots are becoming very popular because they fill a void that exists right now in the warehouse environment. Especially when the busy Christmas retail season rolls out and warehouses are looking to increase their employee base by as much as five or tenfold sometimes, they can't find that workforce.


Now, enter cobots. We are seeing robotic technology that can work in conjunction with labourers. They call them cobots. We have robot technology that can supplement a travel application. They are replacing or at least providing a more efficient picking process so that the robots can take over the travel. They can travel to and from the picking and the shipping consolidation area. There is also the cost factor. Robots are becoming a very good economical alternative or supplement to consider improving the warehouse automation.

Better together: Humans and robots in the warehouse
It’s not hard to find headlines touting a ‘Robots taking over the workplace’ narrative, like this recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Robots are replacing workers where you shop,” or this one from CNN Money, “Robots could wipe out another 6 million retail jobs’. However, before declaring a protest on all robots, it is important to hear another perspective that doesn’t get as much press.

An article that appeared earlier this year in the Houston Chronicle read, ‘In Houston, Amazon’s robots men more work for humans, not less’.  The article went on to state that Amazon expects to hire 2,500 full-time employees to staff its massive warehouse, more than double the number of jobs it announced the prior year at the outset of the project.

Amazon isn’t the only company finding common ground for humans and robots in its warehouses. Earlier this year in Tennessee, USA, DHL began testing robots to assist its pickers in order fulfillment. Rather than pushing a bin or cart, the robots work alongside workers, helping them pick out medical devices that need to be shipped quickly. Third-party logistics provider Quiet Logistics, which fulfills online orders for retailers like Bonobos and Zara, uses the same type of mobile robots in one of its warehouses to support its employees.

Robot + human collaboration equals cobot
Unlike the doomsday narrative of robots taking over the workplace, savvy companies are creating synergistic scenarios where robots perform repetitive, simple job tasks and human laborers focus on tasks that require deeper thinking and strategizing. The new term for this collaboration, ‘cobot’, allows each type of worker to focus on the tasks they do best. For example, some robots can be used to guide workers to the items that need to be picked or routed through the warehouse to the workers who need to pack and ship them.

According to Barclay’s research, the cobot market will be worth US$ 3.1 billion by 2020. The affordability of the technology is playing a big part in its adoption, too. Barclay’s research found that pricing for collaborative robots is steadily dropping by 3 per cent to 5 per cent a year. With an average price in 2015 of US$ 28,000, the expected price of a cobot in 2025 will be around US$ 17,500.

Another plus for cobots is that they don’t require a pricey extensive network of conveyor belts and automation systems. Collaborative robots can be especially useful for handling surges in sales that happen around the holidays when it can be difficult to find extra workers. “It’s not meant to replace human labor, but you can get greater throughput with the same size workforce,” said John Santagate, an analyst with IDC Manufacturing Insights.

The future of cobots: brain-computer interfaces
Aside from lower prices and higher adoption rates, there’s another interesting cobot trend worth keeping an eye on, which is the ability for human workers to control machines with nothing more than their thoughts. The key to this remarkable technology is a wearable device that measures brain activity and translates it into a language a computer can understand. Researchers at MIT are already hard at work on developing what’s being called brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). They’re even claiming they’ve been able to achieve up to 20 per cent robotic performance improvement by enabling robots to adapt to users’ thought commands.

While these claims feel more like something from a sci-fi movie, it is nice to know that even if a robot can’t read your mind, it can still improve workplace productivity by working collaboratively with labourers rather than working against them.

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