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By Matt Wicks, Chief Robotics Solution Architect
Smarter robots will be critical to handling DC order volumes, speeds, and complexities
Today’s distribution center (DC) operations are struggling to keep pace with the speed and complexity of modern e-commerce. U.S. online distribution volume grew faster in 2017 than it has since 2011, and continues to accelerate at around 25% each year.
DCs have a strong motivation to keep pace, even as growth strains the limits of their capacity, because of rising customer expectations for order speed and accuracy. A negative delivery experience will turn away at least half of all consumers, while an estimated 73% of positive experiences will generate repeat business.
Demand for labor is increasing significantly as a result, outpacing the available pool by a rate of 6 to 1. To make matters worse, 60% of supply chain jobs require skills that only 20% of the workforce can offer. Even when workers can be found, many tasks are repetitive and even dangerous — resulting in low worker satisfaction, high turnover, regular retraining and associated costs. All of these factors are combining to make the business case for automation stronger with each passing year.
The declining cost of automation is another driving factor. The average selling price of industrial robots fell by a compound annual growth rate of 7.5% between 2013 and 2017, and it is expected to continue dropping until at least 2023, estimates the International Federation of Robotics.
Now a new generation of smarter, more versatile robots is coming onto the scene, promising to help distribution centers function at a level far beyond what has been available to date. Recent strides in technology are enabling a significant evolution in vision systems, sensor and grasping technology, mobility and more.
Armed with the latest advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and connectivity, these new mechanical helpers will offer cost-effective ways to maximize DC productivity, from receiving to sortation and shipping.
Relentless change is driving a digital transformation
Industries like manufacturing have been bridging the labor gap with robotics for some time, especially in the automobile and electronics sectors. Automation has traditionally been easier to implement in these environments, where the weight, shape and size of everything touched by robots can be carefully defined in advance and kept within those parameters.
However, machines in warehousing and distribution environments have far more challenging jobs. Products and packaging materials are constantly changing. Products move around in response to orders or logistics needs. Robots also have to “share the road” with people, both on foot and operating equipment such as lift trucks. Navigating these constantly changing environments requires human-equivalent levels of awareness and flexibility.
While these variables aren’t insurmountable, their complexity may account for the fact that manual operations remain the norm for about 80% of DCs today. But this business model is becoming increasingly unsustainable, and not just because of labor shortages.
The boom in e-commerce requires more labor per item as DCs pick and pack online purchases individually. Freight and parcel handling labor is also on the rise, as a growing amount of goods are shipped in separate packages directly to consumers’ homes.
Tomorrow’s robots will teach themselves — and one another
Robots that will begin rolling out later in 2019 are designed to take full advantage of “the power of connected.” These new robots will use a universal control platform, essentially a cutting-edge “brain” capable of driving many different types of robotics. This solution combines the latest sensor technology with the processing power needed to handle massive volumes of data, plus state-of-the-art machine learning and AI. The result is robots that see better, think smarter and act faster.
This approach not only enables enhanced visibility into the robots’ operation, it allows them to adapt to changing conditions and improve their own performance over time. Building off a single platform also offers new benefits to connected distribution centers:
Better performance — The coming smart robots are designed specifically for dynamic, unstructured environments like distribution centers. This will make it possible to automate more tasks like unloading shipping containers, sorter induction and more.
Increased speed to market — Advanced simulation capabilities will speed the development of new applications by enabling virtual code development and training from machine learning models. Robots use the same code to “talk” to the simulation models and the real world, simplifying the validation of system operation and performance across multiple scenarios. In addition, perception and intelligence developed for one type of robot can be leveraged into other types, further reducing implementation time and costs.
Ongoing performance enhancements — A common connected platform creates economies of scale by enabling robot-to-robot and site-to-site communication. Once a single robot learns the solution to a new problem, its training model can be pushed out to every robot performing that application across all of a user’s sites.
Fewer operator interventions — Smart robots take full advantage of the most sophisticated reporting, diagnostic, notification and alert capabilities found in emerging material handling equipment, with the additional benefit of connecting these solutions across the DC and between sites. Potential challenges can be spotted early, often preventing problems before they occur.
Sponsored content by Honeywell Robotics.
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