The Inevitability of Warehouse Robots
Recently, while attempting to leave San Francisco International Airport, I found myself halted by the CAFEX coffee-making robot. Its glistening white arms moved with surprisingly organic fluidity, even attempting to gently swirl the cup’s contents. Instantly, I found myself in an internal social debate, “Is this the end of the cheery barista?”
But my concern for my fellow humans in this vocation turned out premature. The next day brought news of CAFEX shuttering stores throughout the San Francisco area. Perhaps in search of a broader narrative, tech bloggers pointed out the general discomfort over food-making robot startups. The celebrated Softbank-funded pizza-making robot Zume’s pivot to food-truck tech was deemed to be leading the decline, with Easta, CAFEX and other notables following.
As it turned out, during the same week, I found myself amongst robots yet again; this time the kinds that make warehouses more productive. The contrast was stark: here was a corner of the robotics world that was bursting with the promise of growth. An optimism, reminiscent of R2D2’s, filled the grey aisles. This industry is only a few years old filled with startups (Fetch, Locus, 6 River, Grey Orange and many more) founded in the wake of Kiva getting acquired by Amazon. But already numerous warehouse operators are eager to pilot robots, with some big retailers well into serious deployments.
To say it with numbers “nearly 28% of warehouses globally will be using commercial robots by 2025, compared with around 3% in 2018”1. In anticipation of this growth, over $1 billion in investment has flowed into logistics-focused robotics and automation companies since 20152.
What inclinations are leading this growth, especially in the face of many other enterprise technologies still looking for that proverbial nail?
The “Amazon” Effect
It starts with e-commerce and the customer’s demand for ever-increasing choice, flexibility, and speed. As a result, more warehouses will be required to handle everything from pallets of mulch to single picks of socks. An unchanging warehouse fulfilling a static demand profile will not do at all. In the e-commerce world, your warehouse employees turn into personal shoppers, walking the aisles so your home-bound shopper doesn’t have to.
Fixed conveyors, pre-installed guides for automated guided vehicles (AGVs), etc., lock a warehouse to doing one thing, and no one wants that anymore. Meanwhile, warehouse associates are walking long distances every day, with poor pick rates and greater exhaustion.
Self-guided robots, or autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), are a solution precisely in response to the twin needs of flexibility and efficiency. The robots do most of the walking equipped with multiple cameras, Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and a lot of onboard computing. They can navigate a changing warehouse layout, with very little to no retraining.
Labor is changing
As with many other lower-skilled sectors, the labor landscape in warehouses is changing fast. Seasonal hiring peaks were always a reality, but the emphasis on getting your gifts shipped out before Christmas has meant hiring has become very competitive. And peak season, which once kicked off gently in August to get retail shelves stocked, now lasts much longer. On the supply side, many seasonal workers now have other gigs to bring in income that previously might have come only from the warehouse.
All this translates to prolonged high demand for warehouse workers, in a competitive marketplace. To meet demand, warehouses must dig deep, and a significant portion of the pool might be completely inexperienced, with no time for efficiency training.
Again, robots are addressing these very gaps. They know the lay of the warehouse, so new hires don’t have to. They will trudge miles so humans can minimize fatigue. They will even tell you what to pick, from where and where to put it. All they want from human workers is the dexterity of their fingers, easily picking objects soft or heavy, from bins high or low. These robots–or “cobots”, for robot coworkers–are a force multiplier for the worker, increasing efficiency even in a challenging labor market. Think augment, not replace.
Have you heard that companies are making electric cars, and even some that can drive themselves? Of course, you have! While we are not quite at driver-less rush hour traffic quite yet, the global impact of driverless vehicles has been pegged at trillions of dollars3.
Seismic changes of this sort influence growth in proximate applications, especially those that share similar technology. AMRs are driverless vehicles that carry goods instead of people, and even a complex warehouse is an easier problem compared to live traffic. Just look at LIDAR technology which is used to map the physical environment and obstacles. LIDAR that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars (for cars) is now hitting the $1,000 mark and can even be had for a monthly subscription from Luminar. Advancements in brushless motors, battery technology, and AI computers are all contributing to the building of better robots, quicker.
Software is New Hardware
Over the last few years, the traditional world of hardware tech has been upended by pervasive connectivity. Almost no one seems to make hardware anymore without having it tied to a cloud. As a result, more than ever before, it’s cloud-based software and APIs that determine the success of hardware. For enterprise robots, the most pertinent questions are probably not about motor wattage or camera resolutions. Instead, it’s about flexible API interfaces that connect your fleet to the decision-makers: Warehouse Management Systems, Warehouse Execution Systems and maybe even Workforce Management solutions. Born with REST APIs in their DNA, the current breed of robots is built ready to integrate into warehouse software, a far cry from the PLC-strewn landscape of the warehouse automation of yesteryears.
Meanwhile, back at SFO, I had little time to dawdle at the coffee bot. Its shiny appeal had given way to the problem-solving pragmatism of our newest warehouse coworkers, working quietly and efficiently powered by the rest of us clicking “Buy Now.”
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- Warehouse Robotics Startups Drawing Bigger Investor Backing, WSJ, January 7, 2020
- Robotics Picking Up Speed in 2020, Food Institute, January 10, 2020
- Accelerating the Future: The Economic Impact of the Emerging Passenger Economy, June 2017