MHD-robots-in-the-warehouse-DC-automation

Robots in distribution centres – from MHD magazine

Mal Walker

Don’t worry, contrary to the terrifying Daleks portrayed in the long-running Dr Who series, robots are not taking over the world or the universe! In reality, they are more analogous to the friendly droids of Star Wars’ 3-CPO R2-D2 and BB8. They are loyal and faithful servants to their human and non-human masters.
This is good news for distribution centre operators, because the Star Wars ‘droids’ have morphed into a new generation of reliable DC robots that are revolutionising the logistics world!
Research from market intelligence firm Tractica reports that the worldwide sales of warehousing and logistics robots reached USD1.9 billion in 2016, with growth in coming years its projected to reach USD22.4 billion by the end of 2021. Manufacturers of robots can therefore expect unit shipments to increase from 40,000 in 2016, to 620,000 units annually by 2021 (reference: www.tractica.com).
But who is buying robots? Traditionally, it was manufacturers with repetitive production processes, but the robotic landscape has broadened to include distribution centres, mines, hospitals, hotels, casinos, offices, mines and others. In fact, any application where a process can be automated.

Should you use them in your DC?

In this article, I will briefly touch on the 13 most common types of robots that are being used in distribution centres, along with their characteristics and uses. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it may help in working out what robots could be beneficial in your situation.
Firstly, how do you classify robots? Particularly as there are so many variants. The Tractica report lists the following four in the context of distribution centres.

  • Mobile robot platforms: automated guided vehicles (AGV) and autonomous vehicles.
  • Shuttle automated storage and retrieval systems: ASRS, featuring in-rack robots.
  • Industrial robotic manipulators: typical robotic arms that can be applied to countless applications.
  • Gantry robots: robots that run on overhead structures.

“If you are looking at robots as a solution, be sure to do your homework in terms of analysis, application and return.”

But what do they do, and how do you know if you would benefit from one, or more? To assist, I’ve developed a table that lists the types of robots and applications in warehousing facilities. Bur first here are some definitions that may be helpful.

  1. AGV

Generally used for transport of goods within a set path or circuit. May be guided by rails, lasers and sensors. These have been around for many years, but AGV technology has advanced and is far more affordable, reliable and applicable to many types of mobile equipment.

  1. Shuttle systems

Used within racking systems to place and retrieve stock. The racking maybe serviced by automatic conveyors or AGV, or manually by an operator.

  1. Autonomous mobile robots

These are free-path robots controlled to operate on the best put-away or picking path. Using sensors and cameras, they can navigate around a DC where people are working. They are ideal for goods-to-person and task-to-person applications.

  1. Stacker cranes

These are used in automated storage and retrieval systems for pallet handling. Yes, they have been around for many years, but they are a robot, nonetheless. They typically run on fixed-path rails systems.

  1. Mini-load stacker cranes

Related to the larger stacker cranes, mini-load cranes run on fixed rails installed within racking. They can achieve high rates of replenishment and picking and are now able to pick cartons, object and eaches to totes or conveyor belts.

  1. Industrial robotic order picker

Using conventional robots with articulated arms for picking and palletising/ depalletizing etc. has become common place. In recent years, visualisation technology has enabled robots to see and pick stock in units. If the robot does not have the right gripping device to pick items up, it merely changes to the right one, and continues picking.
And now some common operating modes:

  1. Goods-to-person

Where automation or a robot brings goods to a human for order picking purposes.

  1. Task-to-person

Where a robot brings a receptacle and picking intelligence/information to a picker, so that the picker can pick the required goods to specific order bins on the receptacle. (Amazon makes use of task-to-person robots in some locations.)

  1. Goods-to-robot

Automation or robots bring goods to a robot for order picking purposes

  1. Person to robot

A person brings goods to a robot for specific orders or sortation and delivery by the robot to a consolidation or packing zone. These robots can typically include tilt-tray devices for feeding goods into staging bays or directly to cartons.
MHD-robot-in-the-warehouse-DC-automation-table
Now that you know the common types of robots and operating modes, the charts should make some sense in terms of application. What is hard to define is the cost for automation and robotics. This is complex and depends on many factors too numerous to cover here. However, the evidence suggests that robots are becoming cheaper, reliable and easier to justify than ever before.
If you are looking at robots as a solution, be sure to do your homework in terms of analysis, application and return. If you do, you may be relieved that Dalek’s will not conquer your operation. Instead, be pleasantly surprised that robots may be more economical than you realise.
Mal is manager, consulting with the Logistics Bureau, where he works with local and international organisations to guide them in specification preparation, establishment and review of outsourcing contracts. He holds qualifications in engineering, business operations and logistics. For more information contact Mal on 0412 271 503 or email mwalker@logisticsbureau.com.
You can read the rest of MHD magazine March-April issue here: 
https://issuu.com/theintermediagroup/docs/mhd_march-april_2019
 

Boston Dynamics enters logistics market with Kinema Systems acquisition

Boston Dynamics has announced the acquisition of Kinema Systems, a company that enables industrial robotic arms with deep learning technology to locate and move boxes on complex pallets.
Using a combination of vision sensors and deep learning software, Kinema Systems’ Pick technology works with commercial robotic arms to move boxes off pallets to conveyors or build stacks of boxes on pallets.
Pick enables logistics, retail, and manufacturing companies to achieve high rates of box moving with minimal set up or training for both multi-SKU and single-SKU pallets.
“Bringing the Kinema team into Boston Dynamics expands our perception and learning capabilities while the Pick product accelerates our entry into the logistics market. Beyond being a powerful tool for industrial robotic arms, Kinema technology will help our mobile manipulation robots tackle a wide variety of complex real-world tasks,” Boston Dynamics Founder and CEO Marc Raibert said.

 

DHL takes vision-picking strategy global

Following augmented reality pilots in several regions, DHL Supply Chain, a subsidiary of Deutsche Post DHL Group, has expanded use of its ‘vision picking’ technology in warehouses around the world.
The smart glasses provide visual displays of order-picking instructions along with information on where items are located and where they need to be placed on a cart, freeing pickers from paper instructions, increasing efficiency and comfort.
In the international trials, DHL Supply Chain saw an average increase in productivity of 15 per cent, and higher accuracy rates, and the solution reportedly halved onboarding and training times.
“Digitalisation is not just a vision or program for us at DHL Supply Chain, it’s a reality for us and our customers, and is adding value to our operations on the ground,” said Markus Voss, Chief Information Officer and Chief Operating Officer, DHL Supply Chain.
“Customers have been very happy about the productivity gains and are equally excited about using innovative technology at their warehouses.”
Pilot programs took place across the US, mainland Europe and the UK over different industries including technology, retail and consumer.
DHL Supply Chain has reported that employees were found to be enthusiastic about using state-of-the-art technology and were pleased with how lightweight the smart glasses were, and how much more comfortable the process became with hands-free picking.
“We are very satisfied and happy that the pilot phase went so well and that we can now say augmented reality technology is one of our standard offerings at
DHL Supply Chain,” added Voss. “As one of the first logistics companies using the technology, we have truly established a new way of order picking in the industry.”
Following the success of its vision-picking program, DHL is looking into additional applications for augmented and virtual reality such as training and maintenance.
 

Logistics robots to represent Australia at Amazon competition

Amazon has announced the 16 finalists in its third-annual Amazon Robotics Challenge, including two teams hailing from Australia.
At the event on 27 July in Nagoya, Japan, the teams will demonstrate their latest robotics hardware and software that can pick and stow items in storage
The Challenge combines object recognition, pose recognition, grasp planning, compliant manipulation, motion planning, task planning, task execution, and error detection and recovery. The robots will be scored by how many items are successfully picked and stowed in a fixed amount of time.
Teams from Australia, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, the Republic of Singapore, Spain, Taiwan and the United States will be competing for a chance of winning up to US$250,000 ($339,000) in prizes.
“This challenge is an opportunity to strengthen the ties between the industrial and academic robotic communities and promote shared and open solutions to the technical challenges we face in unstructured automation,” said Joey Durham, Contest Chairperson and Manager of Research and Advanced Development, Amazon Robotics. “It’s also a celebration of robotic innovation – something we are deeply focused on at Amazon – and provides a platform for the academic and research community to share and promote their research in a fun and rewarding way.”
The Australian teams taking part are ‘ACRV’, from Queensland University of Technology, and Applied Robotics – Smart Robotics, from the University of Sydney.
The Robotics Challenge will be held during RoboCup, a competition for intelligent robots and one of the world’s most important technology events in research and training. The 2016 contest was held at RoboCup in Leipzig, Germany, and was won by team Delft, a collaboration between Delft Robotics and TU Delft’s Robotics Institute.
“As a result of this contest, we are attracting more interest than ever before from robot manufacturers approaching us to pursue additional research,” said Carlos Hernandez Corbato, Team Delft Captain and postdoctoral researcher. “This challenge was the most exciting project I have ever done in research and the most gratifying because of how much we learned.”

Alibaba-backed warehouse robot raises $18m in funding

Chinese robot company Geek+ has raised RMB100 million ($18 million) in a funding round led by Vertex Venture, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore’s Temasek Holdings.
The Beijing-based enterprise was founded in 2015 and its robots have been likened to the Kiva robots used by Amazon to automate processes in its distribution centres.
The money raised will be used to support the start-up’s research and development capabilities and expand its team and business.
Geek+ manufactures robots for use in warehouses by the logistics industry. They are capable of selecting, transporting and sorting packages and objects, and can move autonomously to aid human colleagues with tasks.
Business Standard reports that 300 of Geek+’s robots can already be found at work in a number of industries including e-commerce, retail and manufacturing in China, covering over 50,000sqm of warehouse space.
It is backed by several large names, including Alibaba whose TMall e-commerce platform it supported during China’s biggest shopping event – Singles’ Day by sorting millions of packages.

Stock pickers help museum manage 250k-strong collection

The Australian Museum is employing Toyota Material Handling Australia’s (TMHA) new range of elevated work platforms (EWPs) at its new, purpose-built warehouse facility in Sydney’s west.
The Museum currently has two Bravi Spin-Go stock picker EWPs supplied by TMHA in operation at its 3000sqm warehouse in Castle Hill, with plans to add a larger Bravi Sprint EWP and other Toyota warehousing equipment to the fleet soon.
The Australian Museum’s Dr Anja Divljan said staff at the new facility found the Bravi Spin-Go EWPs to be an easy and efficient way to access some of the 250,000 items of the museum’s collection that are stored at the site.
“The staff here find the EWPs easy to use and they are functioning very well in what is quite a unique warehousing environment,” Dr Divljan said.
The BRAVI Spin-Go EWPs are currently used to access items stored in compactus units that reach four metres in height.
“This part of the warehouse is situated on a floating floor, so there is a weight limit in place,” Dr Divljan said. The higher-reach capacity Bravi Sprint stock picker will be used in the remainder of the warehouse that sits on a solid floor and is fitted out with regular pallet racking.
“This area contains larger and heavier items, many of them on standard pallets, so we are also working with our local Sydney TMHA branch to assess our need for more traditional warehouse equipment like a counterbalance forklift, walkie stackers and pallet jacks,” she said.
“Most of our collections staff aren’t qualified to use a forklift, but they were able to get to work with the EWPs after TMHA organised on-site inductions and familiarisation to a standard recognised by the Australian market.”
TMHA business development and compliance sales manager Andrew Jones said the company had taken a real solutions-based approach to helping the Australian Museum set up its new storage facility.
“The Australian Museum has a lot of different items of varying size, weight and fragility that need to be stored and easily accessed by collections staff. We decided the agile Bravi Spin-Go EWPs would best suit their needs to start with, so we delivered a demonstration unit to the warehouse to physically illustrate and trial its capabilities and confirm that it was the right tool for the job,” he said.

Butler robot contract awarded for large home furnishing chain in Japan

Technology company GreyOrange and logistics technology provider GROUND Inc have been awarded the contract to supply robotics solutions to the Nitori Holdings Group, Japan’s largest furniture and home furnishing chain with over 400 stores. The robotics system will be deployed at Home Logistics which is a logistics subsidiary of Nitori Holdings, operating 34 distribution bases and an efficient logistics network for product delivery to stores and e-commerce customers across the country.
Manabu Matsuura, Corporate Officer of Nitori Holdings and CEO of Home Logistics said, “We were impressed to find that the GreyOrange Butler is an entirely new robotics concept for warehouse automation unlike automated storage and retrieval systems. Also, Butler satisfies our corporate philosophy that we always pursue ideal workplaces for everyone. For example, we have been an early adopter of technology solutions and were the first user in Japan to leverage robotic storage systems in our warehouses last year.”

Manabu Matsuura, Corporate Officer of Nitori Holdings and CEO of Home Logistics, and Nalin Advani, CEO - APAC, GreyOrange.
Manabu Matsuura, Corporate Officer of Nitori Holdings and CEO of Home Logistics, and Nalin Advani, CEO – APAC, GreyOrange.

Hiratomo Miyata, CEO of GROUND Inc., exclusive provider of GreyOrange Butler in Japan, said: “We are really happy to announce that Home Logistics has become the first user of the Butler in Japan. They have evaluated several options and are glad to use the Butler as they believe the Butler goods-to-person technology will be a driving force in their strategy to increase productivity in their warehouse operations through robotics.”
The GreyOrange Butler system will be installed at the Home Logistics Osaka distribution centre, to handle automated inventory storage and picking. The software adapts in real-time to changing inventory profiles and order fulfilment patterns, for high productivity and accuracy.
Nalin Advani, CEO – APAC, GreyOrange said, “Japan has one of the world’s most mature distribution infrastructure and it is the fourth largest e-commerce market. Over 75 per cent of consumers regularly shop online and e-commerce is forecasted to grow to US$200 billion ($260 billion) by 2020. We are honoured to work with Nitori Group, including Home Logistics, to deploy our Butlers. The Nitori Group is far-sighted in anticipating the challenges of warehouse operations and addressing it with robotics. We are also excited to be selected for the Japan market where specifications for technology are among the most demanding in the world.”

Amazon’s robot workforce grows by 50 per cent

The e-commerce giant Amazon has announced that it ‘employed’ 45,000 robots in 20 of its fulfilment centres during the 2016 holiday season, up from the 30,000 working alongside 230,000 human colleagues during the 2015 holiday season.
The amount of human workers employed in the last holiday season is to be announced at the company’s earning calls in early 2017.
The Seattle Times noted that the company’s 2016 robot workforce has a bigger ‘headcount’ than the armed forces of the Netherlands.
The robots in question are Kiva Robots, made by the robotics firm bought by Amazon in 2012, Kiva Systems.

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