Warehouse Robots

In 2016, Shekar Natarajan, Wal-Mart’s vice president of logistics strategy announced that the world’s number one distribution company would use drones in its warehouses. Equipped with a scanner, they will carry out the inventories of stored cartons and palletsto update stock counts. This announcement is just one of many indications of the impact of robotics in logistics as the robots will takeoverfuture warehouses.

Amazon has shown a new path

The founding act of this 21st-century logistics approach goes back to March 2012 when Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon completed the acquisition of Kiva Systems for 775 million dollars (now Amazon Robotics). Kiva had developed a small robot whose sole function was to transport racks loaded with products before an operator whose job is “picking” and placing the order in cartons. This is a “Goods to Man” approach that reduces the distance of operators who often cover more than 10 km per day in the warehouse to pick up the items for each order. By taking advantage of Kiva, the giant E-Commerce company has ensured the uniqueness of its production to meet its needs. Reports have it that than 30,000 kiva systems have been deployed in Amazon’s fulfillment centers.

Another company, Balyo, offers a robotic kit for conventional handling trucks, and many other companies are developing solutions for the “Goods to Man” approach, which has provento effective for Amazon. Other warehouse robotic manufacturers includeHitachi with its robot named Racrew, the Austrian Knapp AG and its Open Shuttle, the Swiss, a subsidiary of the German robotics giant Kuka, and finally the French’sScallog.

Fast-growing new generation robotsFast-growing new generation robots

These new generation systems will increase the use of robotics in warehouses. According to figures from the International Federation of Robotics (https://ifr.org), in 2014, 2,644 logistics systems were deployed worldwide (that is 27% increase in one year). These traditional systems consist of conveyor systems, sorting and preparation systems which are permanently installed in the warehouse, unlike these new generation robots, which are software-driven and easy to redeploy when needed. At the same time, 2,164 stand-alone guided vehicles were deployed in factories and 400 in non-industrial environments, a29% growth, figures that do not include Kiva robots.

Nevertheless, research is still ongoingin the area of”picking” robotics. Amazon has launched an annual contest, the Amazon Picking Challenge, an annual competition that looks for robots that could one day work in the company’s warehouses.

Fetch Robotics has positioned themselves in the logistics robotics market. They have created a range of robots capable of carrying item bins, following a storekeeper or inventory via RFID antennas. On some prototypes, the engineers have given their robot an arm that will allow it to be more capable in picking and will may allow it to compete with storekeepers in the years to come.

Drone in warehousesDrone in warehouses

If robots increase in the industrial and distributionsupply chain, another form of robots should make a very noticeable appearance in warehouses, drones. As mentioned, Walmart has announced its intention to deploy drones in its warehouses. A French company, HardisGroup, has launched a similar project as early as 2015with the introduction of the inventory taking drone, “Eyesee.” “We filed the first patent in January 2015 and launched the phase of production of 4 prototypes at the beginning of the year 2016,” says Stephane Cadenet, head of the Eyesee program at Hardis. “Our prototypes are being tested at a major European logistics company to validate our technical choices.” The objective of the French company is to develop an “inventory” drones that are armed with a scanner, and that will tirelessly go through the aisles of warehouses to make a complete inventory of the stored items without any human intervention.

Accomplishing this task implies the drone must be able to position itself very precisely in the warehouse, locate each item, and identify the labels on the cartons or the pallets by image analysis to finally scan the information. The drone must be completely reliable and autonomous to function properly. It really has to simplify the lives of logisticians. The drone must be able to function without a pilot, and it must be able to recharge itself.

Companies such as Amazon are already using mobile robots in thewarehouse to bring shelve to human workers. It will be interesting to see to what extent robots will potentially replace humans in working in the warehouse physically as well as managing the warehouse. One of the very important aspects of future development is to determine where and how robots can work alongside humans efficiently. The advantage robots have is their ability to work around the clock and not get tired while doing so. They can also physically outperform humans in load bearing and other physical aspects.  Today humans tend to still be generally more skilled and efficient but that may be changing quickly.