The term “automation” was first coined in 1948 by the Vice President of the Ford Motor Company as he saw the need for improved material handling between production stages. From this declaration of “What we need is more automation!” was born the industrial robots of the 1960s and then the very beginning of warehouse automation.
Laying the Foundation
Dating back to the 1950s, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) were the first mobile robots to enter the industry, and would lay the foundation for what would become an automation revolution in the modern-day warehouse. Early versions followed defined paths on the floor marked by tape, with later generations using laser for guidance systems in the 1990s, with fully-autonomous robots developed in 2006.
Consisting of one or more computer-controlled, wheel-based load carriers (normally battery powered) that run on the plant or warehouse floor (or if outdoors on a paved area), AGVs don’t require an onboard operator but do require human workers to walk 10-15 miles per day. Their movement is directed by a combination of software and sensor-based guidance systems. Because they move on a predictable path with precisely controlled acceleration and deceleration and include automatic obstacle detection bumpers, AGVs provide safe movement of loads.
An Industry Disrupted
It took about ten years from the development of laser guided AGVs for the first fully autonomous robots to be launched. Automated Storage and Retrieval System (AS/RS) solutions are robotically driven systems that navigate on a fixed track that automatically shuttle inventory back and forth from dense, fixed storage locations. They’re used to automate the inventory process, retrieve goods for use, and then place those items back into storage once they are no longer needed. There are various types of shuttle systems, including those designed to manage the high levels of throughput and guaranteed product availability expected in the retail and e-commerce environments. Shuttle systems tend to be expensive, require a greenfield warehouse, and are really only accessible to the largest distributors in the world, due price tags starting in the millions and most often reaching $100 million or more.
The automation industry was on a growth trajectory until high-volume mobile robot storage system Kiva was acquired by Amazon, thus creating the disruption we see in the industry today. The loss of Kiva in 2012 created a void in the market, which led to the rise of mobile robots and more advanced manipulation robots.
Filling the Void
The first solutions to enter the market were autonomous mobile carts in 2014 and for the next couple of years these mobile carts started gaining adoption throughout warehouses. These mobile cart solutions provide a low-risk adoption with a quick setup, human collaboration, and the elimination of humans walking long distances throughout warehouses. However, they only automate unproductive walking, they don’t fully automate the piece-picking tasks themselves. Other companies began to enter the market offering automated picking capabilities from a fixed position, with most of their robots being used to transfer goods from one station to another. In 2016, the robotics industry began to take notice to provide more viable, complete solutions.
Where We Are Today
Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs) differ from AGVs by their degree of autonomy, with the former being far more independent than the latter. One of the latest innovations in AMRs is the inclusion of onboard intelligence systems that allow the robots to learn their surroundings either by having a blueprint uploaded, or by having the AMRs drive around and develop their own map. This type of autonomy allows them to quickly adapt to just about any industrial environment.
A subcategory of AMRs, automated carts are designed to lead or follow workers around working alongside humans. These “pick carts” started making their way into warehouses several years ago and are leading the industry in terms of AMR adoption. They trail behind employees as they do their work, helping them pick faster and more accurately. Other types of automated carts effectively “lead” employees through their work, guiding them to the right slotting locations and allowing them to operate in a more hands-free environment.
Automated carts help save time while reducing the number of steps that a worker has to take in the warehouse during the course of a day. With carts, you need a human on either end of the workflow—taking the products off of the racks, putting them onto the carts, and then taking the product off of the cart. These solutions are relatively inexpensive, very easy to install, and complement existing workforces. The problem is, as the labor crisis deepens and workers become less available, these robots cannot perform the entire task alone.
Reimagining What is Possible
Mobile Manipulation Robots (MMRs) are a type of AMR that includes a smart, robotic arm for material handling—picking from a mobile platform. These robots automate both movement and the picking/transfer of goods, and provide a complete automation solution for warehouses and DCs. Fulfillment using people requires them to walk through the facility passing many products stocked but not required for a particular order. In e-commerce, orders are smaller while consumers demand a large number of SKUs to pick from, further increasing the amount the humans must walk. Mobile manipulation robots autonomously travel and pick continuously, performing without fatigue.
IAM Robotics’ Swift Product Suite offers a complete solution, which includes a Swift robot that travels autonomously into warehouse storage areas, finds the inventory locations, individually identifies objects, and picks the objects. Swift can travel autonomously through the warehouse, finding and identifying products, and then picking them up with one of a variety of end effectors.
Defining warehouse robotics as the “deployment of robotics in the warehouse to perform functions such as pick-place, packaging, transportation, and palletizing,” Allied Market Research says key market drivers include increased demand for automation due to the prevailing competition in e-commerce; SKU proliferation, and advancements in technology. The industry is also facing a crisis on the labor front, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that since March 2018 there has been a rarely seen labor market “inversion” of sorts. Put simply, there are now more US job openings now then there are unemployed workers, a historical anomaly, according to Supply Chain Digest.
Not surprisingly then, a growing number of companies are embracing, deploying, and integrating robots into their warehouse and DC operations. This uptick hasn’t escaped the watchful eyes of industry researchers and analysts. MHI’s annual study shows that after a decline in robot usage in 2017, the following year saw a 95% increase. In total, Allied Market Research expects the warehouse robotics market to reach $5.2 billion by 2023, up from $2.4 billion in 2016.
According to the 2018 MHI Annual Industry Report, the implementation of robotics and automation continues to expand as companies look for ways to remain competitive. Robots and automation can improve overall efficiency by performing traditionally-manual tasks such as picking, sorting, inspecting, storing, handling, and classifying products.
In surveying its members, MHI says adoption of robotics in the warehouse is expected to reach 53% over the next two years, and 74% by 2023 (compared to a current 34%). “This expected rise in adoption,” MHI concludes, “suggests that firms recognize robotics and automation as integral tools to maintain and increase competitive advantage through NextGen supply chains.”