Do you remember a time, not so long ago, when we didn’t have a cell phone in our pockets? Now, we can’t imagine life without them. Soon enough, we will all look back on day-to-day life and have trouble imagining life without robots.
Our society is approaching a tipping point at which robots will become useful for everyday tasks. We are already seeing autonomous robots playing a role in our society, and this will continue to be more prevalent in all facets of life. In a February 2015 article, the Wall Street Journal reported that researchers forecast one-third of all jobs will be performed with machine technology within a decade—and nearly half of current jobs will be within two decades.
The supply chain industry will be one of the first to reap the benefits of the robotic revolution. Thus far, autonomous robots have made slow inroads in the distribution and logistics industries. However, it’s become apparent that new forms of automation are necessary to meet the exponentially growing demands of e-commerce.
Typical supply chain jobs such as fulfillment picking and truck driving are dull, repetitive and exhausting, leading to high levels of turnover. Robots can solve labor management difficulties, perhaps the biggest challenge supply chain companies face. Successful automation solutions will work within existing environments and use existing tools on which the supply chain depends.
A few trends are positioned to make automation a requirement for survival in the supply chain industry. First, an aging population means we’ll have more non-working-age consumers demanding goods through the supply chain and not enough workers to meet the demand. Additionally, we’ve seen a rise in domestic manufacturing that will require businesses to offer supply chain workers better wages and more engaging work to stay successful.
Finally, e-commerce continues to explode. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of warehouse jobs increased seven-fold, a trend that’s both disruptive and unsustainable. Logistics operations can’t scale beyond material limitations, which means physical automation is the next logical step.
Several innovations have made it possible for robots to enter the supply chain in a big way. New low-cost commodity sensors enable robots to see the world in full 3D, providing data at speeds comparable to human vision and allowing robots to handle objects in the environment dynamically. The availability of high processing power at low cost and low power consumption has also revolutionized the world of robotics.
Autonomous robotic solutions offer several advantages, including flexibility on par with manual labor and no need to build new facilities. Robots can work within existing infrastructure the way humans do. We’ll begin to see driverless trucks traversing existing roads and highways. Picking robots can use the same pallets, totes and racks already found in warehouses.
We founded IAM Robotics to solve warehouse problems with next-generation robotics. Vision-enabled robots are entering the supply chain to solve many old problems in new ways, often working alongside human employees. We’re building piece-picking robots that can handle walking and grasping through new sensor technologies that allow robots to see products stocked in existing infrastructure.
Companies like Seegrid and Balyo are creating automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, that use sensors to navigate a warehouse without any modifications to flooring or hardware installation. Wynright has robotic solutions for case packing, palletizing and truck loading, plus a robotic truck unloading system that uses vision to see and pick boxes.
Robotics technology has arrived, and we’re seeing the evolution happening rapidly. Once robots cross the tipping point, expect to see lots of new robots in all kinds of new applications. Those companies willing to take a chance on automation early will reap the most benefits and have a true chance to disrupt the competition.