The very first niche for the field of robotics to expand into has always been that of repetitive manual labour. Robots are best at doing things in a rhythmic manner over and over again. This robotic revolution, however, has recently been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What do Warehouse Robots do?
There are tons of jobs at a warehouse centre, a majority of which are highly monotonous and require repetitive manual labour. Not only is this labour expensive for warehouses, but it is also a large reason why they are struggling to keep up during the current pandemic where eCommerce is at an all-time high.
The solution? Autonomous robots. There are many start-up companies that have designed multipurpose robots for warehouses for all sorts of implementations ranging from counting inventory to moving large boxes across the acres of the warehouse. These robots are not only helping warehouses survive the pandemic but also making their processes many times more efficient, all the while saving them money.
The problem of autonomous warehouse robots is a lot more complicated than meets the eye. There are many nooks to explore and wrinkles to straighten before these robots can fully replace humans in warehouses. However, the current technology can provide excellent person-to-person autonomous robots which can make the supply chain smoother than it has ever been.
One of the oldest players in the supply chain market, XPO Logistics was one of the first to pick up on the trend of autonomous robotics. They currently operate on two types of autonomous robots: an autonomous cart robot that can transport goods from one person to another, and a collaborative robot (cobot) which works alongside the employees to perform warehouse tasks.
The goal for XPO Logisitics is to be able to transfer labour intensive tasks, such as walking miles across a warehouse, to autonomous robots. This way, humans can focus on more cognitive tasks which can boost efficiency around the centre. Recently, XPO Logistics has partnered with Nestle to create a digital warehouse in the UK. This warehouse will be the first of its kind and lead the way for many more to come.
The Massachusetts based company, Locus Robotics, is a start-up aiming to revolutionise warehouse management through Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs). These AGVs are designed to work as autonomous robots forklifts which can be highly multifunctional in a warehouse setting. They can be used to move inventory around the warehouse, unload and load trucks, and most importantly, do all of these things at lightning speed.
The international shipping giant, DHL is currently testing the AGVs from Locus Robotics. The company works on a RaaS (Robotics as a Service), business model. They loan their robots to company on a need-based system. This works perfectly for warehouse companies since they can simply move their robots from one centre to the next based on demand.
The idea of drone technology in inventory management was first proposed by Jeff Bezos when he announced Amazon’s delivery drones. This idea has since been expanded into warehouse management and autonomous drones are currently being developed for all warehouse purposes ranging from tracking inventory to moving goods.
It is important to note that the same tasks can be performed by ground autonomous robots as well. However, drones have a clear advantage in that they can perform the task with a much higher accuracy. Unlike ground robots, drones use computer vision in order to track inventory and navigate around the warehouse. This, along with the fact that they are compact and easier to maintain, gives them a significant advantage over ground robots.
Just as AGVs can autonomously drive around inside the warehouse, the Colorado based company Outrider has created autonomous vehicles which can navigate around the warehouse yard. This may seem redundant at first, however, it makes sense in the long run. Parading trailers around the yard is another monotonous and mechanical task that is a waste of human labour.
The Outrider autonomous truck can pick up trailers and drive them to various locations such as parking spots, loading areas, and docks, where they can then be picked up by long-haul trucks for delivery. Along with being warehouse efficient, Outrider’s trucks are also energy efficient since they operate on electric power. Along with Outrider, UPS is also investing in developing yard truck automation of their own. With large companies turning their heads towards automation, there really is no limit to what we can automate.
Many Chinese warehouse companies are creating smarter autonomous vehicles that can not only move inventory around but also interact with it. Traditional AGVs, such as the ones discussed above, walk only on a precoded path and do not posses the ability to analyse their surroundings. These Autonomous Guided Vehicles, however, can be transformed into Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) by adding sensor technologies that allow them to interact with their environment in real time.
An example of an AMR is the TagSurveyor robot. The TagSurveyor can not only move the inventory around but also count inventory on a daily basis using RFID technology. This can increase the accuracy of inventory management by tenfold. With AMRs around the corner, warehouse robot technology is starting to get into the realms of AI.
What’s next for Warehouse Robotics?
Despite the many advancements in Warehouse technology, the field of autonomous robots is still relatively new. The current technology being used in warehouses is very much pre-coded and lacks the ability to work fully hand in hand with humans.
In order to overcome this, autonomous robotic technology is being developed such that the robots gain the ability to “think”. This new generation of warehouse robots will have the ability to process complex data and carry out not only labour intensive but also mathematical tasks which are otherwise monotonous for humans to perform. Once implemented, these smart robots will also be able to communicate with humans and truly become a part of the supply chain.