Robotics in logistics reflect a promising future
Advancement in science and technology has transported us to an era where nothing seems impossible or beyond the reach of humankind. A technology that has elevated our flight of imagination is the robotics that is arriving slowly but surely in cautious and well-considered stages. While personal robots have already arrived at our homes, commercial robots have taken the task of providing service to the manufacturing side of the supply chain, mostly in the automotive sector. However, there lies a huge unexplored sector of logistics where robots are yet to show their skillfulness. Warehouses at all times have dealt with demands for increased productivity, which is hard to achieve with manual and labour intensive processes. A recent trend report on robotics in logistics by Deutsche Post DHL discusses key areas where robotics technology could bring massive transformation.
Unloading goods from trucks, sorting and stacking them onto pallets to be kept in warehouses, is a tedious and time consuming job. To get rid of the problem, DHL and its business and research partners worked to develop a new prototype in 2003– the Parcel Robot. The robot consists of a chassis, a telescopic conveyor belt, a 3D laser scanner, and a gripping system made up of an articulated robotic arm and a grabber. When positioned in front of a container, it uses the laser to scan all boxes before unloading. After analyzing the different sizes of parcel by its integrated computer, the robot determines the optimal unloading sequence. It picks up boxes and places them onto a conveyor that transports the items out of the container and into the sorting center. Although DHL never rolled out this concept as the technology was insufficiently mature to implement, it strengthened the idea that robotic unloading was possible and many companies have since then been involved in developing the concept further. Wynright, a US company, currently offers a truck unloading robot for sale. Like the DHL Parcel Robot, it unloads boxes onto an extendable conveyor belt at a rate of over 500 parcels per hour. It, however, uses low-cost cameras to locate the boxes instead of expensive laser scanners.
Stationary Piece Picking Robots
When it comes to piece picking for different orders, a warehouse worker spends hours walking in the warehouse, covering miles daily. Amazon bought the company Kiva that builds mobile robots which can pick up a shelf of goods and bring it to the picker. After the picker selects the needed items from the shelf, it is replaced by a different shelf. Several other companies like the Swisslog are working on such goods-to-picker concept. With these robotic systems, it is possible in some cases to save 50% of warehouse picking labour by elimination of walking.
Mobile Piece Picking Robots
But when it comes to piece picking, humans have the skill to identify versatile products and make decision based on intuition. However, several startup companies are trying to develop robots that can drive around traditional warehouse shelves and picks items just like human beings. IAM Robotics, a United States based company is currently developing a mobile robot with an arm on top and a camera system that can navigate an existing warehouse and pick items from shelves and place them into an order tote. A commercial version of the system is expected to hit the markets in 2016. Fetch Robotics is also developing a robot that can pick items from shelves while driving around a warehouse. Another German startup company Magazino has developed TORU that uses 2D and 3D cameras that can identify individual objects on a shelf, grasp an item securely, and place it precisely at its destination. All these models are a hybrid of the goods-to-picker approach and the traditional manual picking concept.
Co-Packing and Customization
Rethink Robotics’ Baxter is a robot designed for end-of-production-line packing applications. DHL has purchased several Baxter robots and is currently evaluating the system for co-packing. Baxter incorporates innovative ideas and latest technology but needs further innovation for handling all common co-packing tasks. The makers have also developed a second robot, called Sawyer that is supposed to solve many of the issues found with Baxter while keeping the positive aspects. But robots and their makers won’t stop at that. They want to deliver parcels to consumer’s homes.
Home Delivery Robots
Starship Technologies, a startup company in London, is developing a small mobile robot that can drive on sidewalks at 6 km/h carrying the equivalent of two grocery bags and deliver packages, while the shoppers keep a track on their location through a mobile app. On arrival, only the customer can unlock the cargo with their phone. Starship Technologies is currently testing and demonstrating prototypes and plans to launch the first pilot services in the UK, US, and other countries in 2016. Competitors like the California-based Dispatch Robotics and Ecotranzit72 are also working on a similar concept. These concepts today reflect the promising future of the modern logistics robot. Powered by latest technology they are evolving steadily, eventually becoming more cost effective, swift and reliable.