Cohesio Group, part of Körber Supply Chain has launched a new sorting robot solution as the number of pop-up distribution centres and dark fulfilment stores in Australia and New Zealand rises.
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.
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.
Used within racking systems to place and retrieve stock. The racking maybe serviced by automatic conveyors or AGV, or manually by an operator.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Where automation or a robot brings goods to a human for order picking purposes.
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.)
Automation or robots bring goods to a robot for order picking purposes
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read the rest of MHD magazine March-April issue here:
FedEx Corp. has launched a new agent to meet the rapidly changing needs of consumers: the FedEx SameDay Bot, an autonomous delivery device designed to help retailers make same-day and last-mile deliveries to their customers.
With the bot, retailers will be able to accept orders from nearby customers and deliver them by bot directly to customers’ homes or businesses the same day. FedEx is collaborating with companies such as AutoZone, Lowe’s, Pizza Hut, Target, Walgreens and Walmart to help assess retailers’ autonomous delivery needs. On average, more than 60 per cent of merchants’ customers live within three miles of a store location, demonstrating the opportunity for on-demand, hyper-local delivery.
“The FedEx SameDay Bot is an innovation designed to change the face of local delivery and help retailers efficiently address their customers’ rising expectations,” said Brie Carere, executive vice president and chief marketing and communications officer for FedEx. “The bot represents a milestone in our ongoing mission to solve the complexities and expense of same-day, last-mile delivery for the growing e-commerce market in a manner that is safe and environmentally friendly.”
The FedEx bot is being developed in collaboration with DEKA Development & Research Corp. and its founder Dean Kamen, inventor of many life-changing technologies, including the iBot personal mobility device and the Segway.
“The bot has unique capabilities that make it unlike other autonomous vehicles,” Mr Kamen said. “We built upon the power base of the iBot, an advanced, FDA-approved, mobility device for the disabled population with more than 10 million hours of reliable, real-world operation. By leveraging this base in an additional application, we hope that the iBot will become even more accessible to those who need it for their own mobility.”
The FedEx bot is designed to travel on sidewalks and along roadsides, safely delivering smaller shipments to customers’ homes and businesses. Bot features include pedestrian-safe technology from the iBot, plus advanced technology such as LiDAR and multiple cameras, allowing the zero-emission, battery-powered bot to be aware of its surroundings. These features are coupled with machine-learning algorithms to detect and avoid obstacles, plot a safe path and allow the bot to follow road and safety rules. Proprietary technology makes the bot highly capable, allowing it to navigate unpaved surfaces, kerbs, and even steps for extraordinary door-to-door delivery.
The initial test will involve deliveries between selected FedEx Office locations. FedEx Office currently offers a SameDay City service that operates in 32 markets and 1,900 cities using branded FedEx vehicles and uniformed FedEx employees. The FedEx bot will complement the FedEx SameDay City service.
The FedEx bot will support retailers in several segments, and the first group of retail customers to view the prototype have recognised the value the technology can bring to their industries.
Half of Australian workers have already seen their job responsibilities change as a result of automation, according to recruiting company Hays.
In an online poll of almost 2,000 (1,987) people in Australia conducted by the recruiter, 18 per cent said automation has already impacted their job ‘significantly’, with their duties changing or their role becoming redundant.
Another 32 per cent said their job has been impacted ‘partially’, with some tasks automated and non-routine duties increasing.
The final 50 per cent said automation has so far had no impact on their day-to-day job responsibilities.
“There’s no denying that robots will continue to join workplaces across the country, with professionals able to benefit if they take the appropriate action now,” said managing director of Hays in Australia & New Zealand Nick Deligiannis.
“Even if you are one of the 50 per cent of skilled professionals whose job has not yet been impacted by automation, it’s essential you don’t rest on your laurels. The automation of routine and repetitive job tasks is inevitable.
“To prepare, consider what your job would look like if all the routine and repetitive duties you perform were automated. Then determine how you could fill the time freed up by the automation of these tasks in a way that adds greater strategic value to your employer.
“Next, start to upskill in the higher-value areas you’ve identified so that you’ll be ready for the automation of your lower-value, repetitive tasks.
“But don’t just sit back and wait for automation to knock on your door. Be proactive and embrace change by exploring relevant automation tools and their practical application for your role. Set up a meeting with your boss to discuss these new tools and how they could be of use in your role. Then present your plan for how you can focus your time on higher-value tasks if your routine and repetitive job responsibilities were automated.
“Remember, constant upskilling is the key to remaining relevant and employable when lower-value tasks are automated,” Mr Deligiannis said.
Warehouse automation company Vanderlande has developed a ‘cobot application’ (a robot physically capable of working alongside human operators) together with the Finnish trading company in assembly and fastening materials, Würth Oy, and its logistics software partner (Leanware Oy) in a shared pilot project. The cobot is now operational at Würth’s logistics centre in the town of Riihimäki, just north of Helsinki.
Robotic technology has long been used in the warehousing industry for the automated movement of goods. However, the SIR (Smart Item Robotics) is unique, with its utilisation of a robotic unit that is able to work harmoniously in the same area as a human operator and is abe to smartly ‘pick and place’ individual items. In this way, the project addresses one of the key challenges in the market, which is the continuing lack of available and skilled workers.
One of SIR’s most significant strengths is its ability to handle various products without SKU teaching. In addition, intelligent stacking enables the efficient positioning of goods, while products are handled smoothly and securely.
After a lead time of less than two months, SIR has been integrated into Würth’s daily operations alongside Vanderlande’s flexible storage, retrieval and transportation system, ADAPTO, to seamlessly pick products for its customer orders. It can be controlled using the same Leanware system interface as other processes in the Riihimäki logistics centre and represents Vanderlande’s Smart Item Robot to be used in live operations.
“In practice, SIR is now entering school, where it will develop greatly,” said Würth’s logistics manager Terhi Vesala. “In the beginning, we will learn what type of products the cobot can handle, how it can better enhance the picking process on site, and the most logical division of work. We are striving for total efficiency in human and cobot cooperation, so that the strengths of each can be optimised. In other words, we are experiencing what this robot is truly capable of.”
“This pilot project will give us invaluable experience in the continued development of robotic technology,” added Terry Verkuijlen, executive vice president Warehousing and Parcel at Vanderlande. “Thanks to the logistics expertise that exists in Finland and the close partnership we enjoy with Würth, Riihimäki had the ideal conditions in which to bring SIR to life. Of course, this is an early stage in its development, so we will be proactively monitoring the situation, and working closely with Würth and Leanware to further optimise SIR’s capabilities.”
Amazon.com plans to open its fourth Michigan distribution centre in Gaines Township, creating more than 1,000 full-time jobs with “compelling benefits and opportunities to engage with Amazon Robotics in a highly technological workplace”.
Amazon employees will work alongside “innovative technologies” at the 80,000 square metre DC to pick, pack and ship small items to customers such as books, electronics and toys. The facility will feature technology such as Amazon Robotics that will assist employees in fulfilling customer orders.
“We are very pleased to welcome Amazon to Gaines Township with this new type of Amazon Robotics distribution centre,” said Gaines Township Supervisor Robert DeWard. “This is a huge win for Western Michigan and a wonderful opportunity for our entire region, providing jobs for subcontractors, suppliers, and the 1,000 employees who will join the Amazon team.”
Amazon also offers full-time employees programs like Career Choice, where the company will pre-pay up to 95 per cent of tuition for courses related to in-demand fields, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. Since the program’s launch, over 16,000 employees have pursued degrees in game design and visual communications, nursing, IT programming and radiology, to name a few.
Auckland’s International Airport has become the first in the world to deploy a ‘digital’ biosecurity officer.
“The idea is for her to take some of the load off MPI officers during peak times by answering simple biosecurity questions from the public,” said MPI’s detection technology manager Brett Hickman.
Vai, which stands for Virtual Assistant Interface (Vai), started work last week and is the first ever digital employee to be deployed at an airport.
MPI is trialling Vai in the airport’s biosecurity arrivals area to see whether she will become a permanent asset in the team. Vai can see, hear and answer arriving international visitors’ questions.
Westpac’s Innovation Fund supported the development of Vai for the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), while FaceMe, a New Zealand-based company specialising in AI, developed the technology.
Vai was built using FaceMe’s digital employee platform that offers companies customised digital employees. With training, these ‘employees’ can offer personalised service using natural language.
FaceMe’s avatar technology uses biometrics to learn human interactions and will interact accordingly to ease the customer’s experience.
“Digital employees also learn from every past interaction to sharpen and perfect their skills,” said FaceMe CEO and winner of the Sir Richard Branson ‘Virgin Business Challenge’ Danny Tomsett.
“Vai is highly conversational and has been trained through every interaction, as well as data available on the website. She embodies the AI experience with human like qualities, including a friendly personality and emotional understanding,” added Mr Hickman.
“Nothing can replace real human interaction and relationships, but Vai frees up our officers’ time so they can deal with the really important aspects of their role,” he said.
FaceMe, which was recognised at the ‘Deloitte Fast 50’ NZ awards as one of the country’s fastest growing businesses, believes that the market for AI will grow beyond $47 billion per annum.
“Over the next ten years, human contact with organisations will be reduced to less than 15% of interactions. On the other hand, meeting consumers’ expectations is far more complex today than ever before; and there’s still huge strategic importance in customer experience and its impact on company culture, revenue growth and churn. It’s at the intersection of these two realities that there is a powerful opportunity to innovate,” said Mr Tomsett.
3PL firm GEODIS has improved efficiency and accuracy for online women’s apparel retailer while addressing labour market concerns.
To address the record-low unemployment rate (~3%) and the strain on labour during peak seasons, GEODIS and a major online women’s apparel client partnered to pilot collaborative each-picking using 30 autonomous mobile robots from Locus Robotics in a 13,000 sqm warehouse in Indianapolis, USA. The location handles over 30,000 SKU and uses a manual picking process that is complex and leaves little margin for error.
The results have been staggering, the company says. Now, 80% of the units are picked to the robots daily. Employee productivity has doubled and there was at least 50% reduction in time to train new employees. GEODIS is now looking to expand the partnership with Locus Robotics in more warehouses with their retail and ecommerce customers.
“Our mission is to help our clients succeed by overcoming their logistical constraints and we are committed to innovative solutions for our customers to address industry-wide challenges,” said Marie-Christine Lombard, GEODIS chief executive officer. “The labour market is tight, especially during peak seasons, and we want to enable our team to better execute for our customers. And in this case, the technological support of robots effectively solved the challenge.”
The success of the pilot started with simplifying GEODIS employee training. Rather than spending hours in the classroom, team members were instructed on how to pick to the robots on the warehouse floor, completing the training within a matter of minutes. The messaging on the robots is displayed in their preferred languages allowing for faster absorption of training and a decrease in picking errors. Picking units to the robots also reduced physical demand by eliminating the need to pull pick carts and decreasing overall travel.
Australia Post will launch a four-week robot delivery pilot service in Brisbane on 13 November, the Courier Mail has reported.
In the first such Australian trial, residents in the suburb of New Farm will be able to register and opt to have parcels delivered by an autonomous robot to their door between 6pm and midnight.
For the trial, the robot will be accompanied by a human Australia Post chaperone and will carry one parcel at a time.
Upon arrival at the residence, a text message will be sent to the recipient of the parcel, to open the parcel locker they simply need to reply to the message.
“The small-scale trial will explore if there is customer demand to receive after hour deliveries via a mobile parcel locker,” said an Australia Post spokesman.
“It’s important we get this right and we will only continue exploring this technology where there is community support.”
Analysts from Research and Markets have announced in their latest report on industrial automation that the global industrial automation services market was worth US$35.2 billion ($44.5 billion) in 2016 and is estimated to reach US$64.5 billion ($80.6 billion) by 2022, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.6 per cent for the forecasted period.
Industrial automation involves automation of manufacturing, quality control and material handling processes, with control systems, information technologies and robots used to handle different processes in an industry. Various types of industrial automation include fixed or hard automation, programmable automation and flexible or soft automation. Project engineering and installation holds major share in this market. Advantages of industrial automation include increased productivity, improved product quality, reduced routine checks and improved operational efficiency.
According to the report, the US is currently at the head of the industrial automation market, followed by Europe. Asia Pacific (which includes Australia) is expected to be the fastest growing region in this industry. The reports says during 2015–16, US companies exported nearly US$10.5 billion worth of products to foreign markets.
Some of the key growth factors of this industry are the need for operational efficiency, rapidly growing SMEs, a growing inclination towards Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud-based automation, the growing demand for smart factories, mass customisation, supply chain synchronisation, integration of systems and increasing R&D and innovation in artificial intelligence and advancement in the M2M communication technology. High installation and maintenance costs and lack of trained professions are some of the constraints in this industry.
Major companies in this industry include Honeywell International, General Electric Company, Mitsubishi Electric, Rockwell Automation, Johnson Controls, ABB, Samsung Electronics, Siemens AG and Schneider Electric. The report also pointed out that most of the regional and local vendors are vertically integrated. International players can grow by acquiring regional or local players.