Dancing with Robots

Issue 1, October 2021

Market analysts are forecasting labor shortages in the United States and Europe, as well as sustained pressure on supply chains to deliver orders quickly and with more precision for the foreseeable future.

As a result, operations managers are turning to robots and other technologies to fill the void and keep things moving, as it were. “Automation is the great workforce multiplier,” says Willy Shih of Harvard Business School. They are smart, can perform various repetitive tasks (such as material batching, picking, ordering, packaging, and more), and improve operational efficiency and reduce delivery errors significantly over their human counterparts.

Even so, machines won’t replace humans in the workplace. Humans can reason and, thus, hold the advantage in running a well-organized warehouse. Instead, the adoption of technology offers many people the opportunity to improve their skill sets and earn more using their brains, not their brawn. Here is a visual tour of how people and robots are currently collaborating or coboting in the workplace.

Serial entrepreneur Andrew Smith is laser-focused on two missions in life: the responsible deployment of automation technology and the de-carbonization of industrial systems. His latest venture, Golden, Colorado-based startup Outrider, aims to re-envision the nerve center of the supply chain, the distribution yard, using autonomous vehicle technology and electrification.

While not everybody spends their days contemplating the goings-on in what is essentially active parking lots, Smith knows that the distribution hub is a critical link in the global supply chain and is not only ripe for disruption, but also overdue.

Over 10 billion tons of freight is moved by truck through distribution yards or hubs every year in the U.S. alone, everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the furniture upon which we relax. If a trailer isn’t in the right place at the right time, a backlog is created, grinding the flow of goods to a halt, costing the transporters—and customers—time and money, and further eroding an already shaky global supply chain.

As you can imagine, choreographing the movement of multiple 80,000-pound trailers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year can get chaotic and, thus, hazardous to the people involved. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 213,100 warehouse-related injuries reported in 2020 at a cost to American businesses of approximately $170 billion. As a result, logistics-dependent enterprises have been urgently looking for a solution to these challenges.

“The inhospitable and confined, private-property environment combined with the need to perform repetitive tasks make the yard a perfect environment for our technology,” Smith says. Outrider’s system combines management software, autonomous zero-emissions battery-powered yard trucks that feature vision-based robotics, and site infrastructure to facilitate communications. When working in tandem, the trio can automate the manual aspect of yard operations, such as moving trailers to and from loading docks and around the loading dock; hitching and unhitching trailers; connecting and disconnecting trailer brake lines using a patented robotic arm; monitoring trailer locations; interacting with the loading docks; tracking trailer inventory; and centrally managing and monitoring all system functions.

By removing the human from the cockpit and replacing them in a mission control type environment, companies can eliminate human error, gaining both efficiency and safety at the same time.

Just because Outrider advocates removing the human from harm’s way does not mean it favors replenishing the workforce with machines and putting more people on the unemployment line. Far from it. Maria Flynn, CEO of the Boston-based non-profit Jobs for the Future, says that more than 50% of the world’s workforce will need significant reskilling within the next few years.

 ”Our current education and workforce systems aren’t built to handle this kind of rapid change we’re witnessing. Policymakers, educators, and employers must work together to change the status quo for education and train

There is more happening inside warehouses as businesses prepare for what is expected to be a hectic holiday season. Retailers and fulfillment warehouse operators are turning to autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to avoid the risk of losing valuable customers because of fulfillment delays.

Locus Robotics builds some of the most innovative AMRs in the fast-paced retail, logistics, and omnichannel fulfillment industries. The LocusBot, as it is more commonly known, is designed to work collaboratively with people, not replace them. Hence, they are colloquially called cobots.

Here’s how the process works: The electric bots rest in a recharging cradle until given a “picking” task. They get their instructions from a warehouse management system and then travel independently around a warehouse, taking the most efficient route to the item or items they are retrieving. When it reaches the item’s location, a sales associate does the physical picking of the thing. First, the bot’s tablet-style display shows the person what to “pluck” off the shelves and where to find it. Then, before loading that item onto the bot, the associate scans its bar code to confirm the accuracy of the pick. After the product is loaded onto the bot, it is carried to a “packer” who puts the item into a box and ships it out to the customer.

The robots come to the human, eliminating the heavy physical demands placed on the worker. According to the Shoes for Crews website, the average industrial worker walks more than 3.9 miles a day, depending on the nature of the industrial work.

“Last holiday season, our Locus system let us boost productivity and efficiency while keeping our workers safe amid COVID-19 concerns,” Chris Christiansen, Outbound Manager, Evo, an innovative action sports and outdoor lifestyle retailer with roots in the Pacific Northwest, told TechENT.tv.

By removing the physical demands (walking all over the warehouse), picking speeds went up from an average of 35 units per hour (UPH) with manual carts to 90 UPH with LocusBots. Some workers topped 125 UPH, an increase of more than 157 percent.

Since 20TK, LocusBots have traveled more than 3 million miles in customers’ warehouses, the equivalent of more than 120 times around the Earth. \

A built-in communication system allows the bots to share data about the various structures, obstacles, people, and other events they observe during a typical day, giving each robot a better understanding, a clearer picture of what’s happening around them, which in turn enables them to avoid colliding with people or each other much the way people avoid each other in crowded streets or hallways.

To lower the cost of entry and allow its customer to scale up or down based on their needs, Locus has adopted a Robots as a Service (RaaS) business model. The subscription-based service lets you increase or decrease the number of robots in your company’s fleet as demand changes. Such an arrangement helps reduces the typical operational costs and removes technology barriers usually associated with conventional, capital-intensive automation solutions that often can take years to deploy.

The past two years have shown how vulnerable our supply chains are. Supply chain disruptions whiplash across the economy, creating insecurity and undermining confidence. “Delivering automation possibilities for logistics and warehouse operations is a foundation for building the next-generation supply chain,” says Matija Kopić, CEO and co-founder of Gideon Brothers, a robotics and artificial intelligence startup based in Zagreb, Croatia.

“People are the core value-creators in logistics operations, and this won’t be changing anytime soon. Close cooperation of people and their robotic helpers is the path to strengthen the resilience of supply chains in the post–COVID era,” says Kopić.

Gideon specializes in building horizontal and vertical material handling bots for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing, and retail businesses. It is one of the few companies that equips its AMRs with a visual perception system capable of leveraging advanced stereoscopic cameras to perceive the world just like human eyes do, in 3D and full color. As a result, the technology can transform traditional forklift chassis and other OEM platforms into AMRs capable of solving the most prevalent warehouse pain point. That means Gideon bots can automate complex workflows that, until now, have been considered impossible to automate efficiently.

How? “The typical task is always a variant of ‘move stuff from point A to B,'” says Kopić. “It’s rather straightforward, no matter what the robot’s form is – if it’s a squat platform, an autonomous forklift, or a robot with a conveyor add-on. The challenge, however, is the environment. Take a bustling facility, where people and goods constantly move around, for instance. Even a simple task becomes incredibly complex.

Gideon’s vision technology allows the bot to “see” static and moving obstacles and go around them – or stop and wait for them to pass. Then, once its load has been delivered, it goes on to the next task.

The technology has significant advantages in making maps and freight hauling. Still, the ability to navigate around employees and equipment and other moving machines while transporting heavy loads reduces liability and improves safety. In addition, each robot can move up to 2,200-pounds and uses a hot-swappable battery system, allowing minimum downtime for recharging.

In late 2019, Walmart tested Gideon’s pallet moving solution. The company’s robotics engineering team was so impressed with the underlying technology, they asked Gideon to install the system on their curbside delivery robot, ‘Kirby,’ a project Walmart had been working on for some time. The project’s success led to Walmart placing a 450-unit order over the next two years, valued at $11.5M.

Further Reading