Improved technology driving robotics adoption

Improved technology driving robotics adoption
The technology situation for robotics has greatly improved in the past five to 10 years. This has created more widespread availability of good quality, low cost sensors (e.g., depth cameras, GPUs, etc.) that can be used in automation and robotics solutions. Tremendous growth in the commercialization of robotic arms, industrial and more recently collaborative versions, including those that are of appropriate size and cost for each-picking usage, has also spurred growth in this area, according to Vince Martinelli, Head of Product at RightHand Robotics.

“It’s also important not to underestimate the value of new software tools, including those for machine learning, and cloud data management systems. These technologies shorten development cycles, reduce costs and provide real-time visibility to drive continuous improvements for systems deployed in the field,” he added. While it is difficult to predict what will happen in the next five to 10 years, these trends show no signs of abating. “This rapidly improving technology not only makes robotic piece-picking such as RightPick possible but makes today the right time to be considering it for use in fulfillment and distribution facilities.”

Yonghai Wu, GM of the Mobile Robot Division at Hikrobot Technology, a subsidiary of Hikvision Digital Technology, noted that with the onset of Industry 4.0 there are now more customer-individualized demands, which requires internal logistics management to be more intelligent and flexible. “Coupled with the growing maturity of robotics and IoT, it is becoming more important to create intelligent logistics by using intelligent devices such as robots.”

“In the wave of China manufacture of 2025, many domestic enterprises are transforming to intelligent manufacturing. Industrial automation and information is becoming more important. Many companies have been using mechanical arms and machine tools interconnected with conveyor belts and artificial transport,” Wu added. As such, he believes intelligent manufacturing will be a big industry, and intelligent in-plant logistics will be a very important segment in the years to come.

IoT and AI

The IoT, AI and machine learning are no longer new, out-of-reach concepts. Yet the current rate of adoption for IoT in supply chains in only 22 percent, according to MHI’s report; this is expected to reach 50 percent in two years and up to 79 percent in five years. This goes to show these concepts are changing the way material handling in warehouses is done. Not only have these technologies made robotic piece-picking at scale possible, they have also enabled innovation in other segments of the supply chain.

Although the transition is still in the early stages, “when applied together in a holistic solutions approach that focuses on solving specific customer problems, these core technologies unlock value and help shrink overall cycle times, meaning faster and more reliable delivery of products to consumers,” Martinelli said.

As an example, Martinelli explained how robotic-piece picking is already changing how warehouse operators do picking from an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS), induction into item sorters, item kitting and order auditing. “These underlying technologies also tend to simplify the integration of new robotic systems with existing automation, meaning retailers can capture the benefits without having to commission a new facility or retire existing systems. Machine learning is interesting, from the perspective of robotic piece-picking, in the sense that the robot can use the history of grasping success and failure of the entire fleet of deployed systems to inform its approach to picking an item it may not have seen previously.”

Tompkins International has introduced The Connected Warehouse as an IoT solution. “The Connected Warehouse is a place where people and technology co-exist in such a way that workers will operate in a more efficient, cost-effective and reliable environment that is comfortable, safe and secure,” Andrea Epstein, Spokesperson for Tompkins International, said. “The growth in machine automation, devices and sensors, and an overall increase in volumes and complexity in the age of digital commerce necessitate the design of such a connected facility.” The Connected Warehouse is powered by SensorThink, a digital platform built for the demands of the warehouse. “Every piece of digital information generated in the warehouse can be collected, processed, archived and analyzed, allowing one to manage material handling automation, security, HVAC, lighting, lift trucks and maintenance systems in a way never before possible,” Epstein explained. “SensorThink’s cloud machine learning and cross platform analytics engine allows you to view and analyze this information within the building or across the distribution network.”

To further capitalize on the use of IoT in the warehouse, Tompkins International developed a Warehouse Execution System (WES), which is integrated with its SensorThink platform. The Tompkins WES can access information from IoT and non-IoT enabled devices, machines and sensors, and other software solutions. This allows WES to manage operational tasks and material handling automation, all while providing a seamless view of process, data and performance.

A fully automated future?

The path to widespread adoption of automation and robotics in warehouses and distribution centers is still far off, but it is obvious that operators are seeing the need for these systems. With more education about the benefits of an automated material handling solution, and the need to keep competitive amidst a rapidly growing e-commerce industry, we will definitely see a rising number of warehouses from small to large incorporate more robotics and automation into their operations.
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