Robotic materials handling comes of age

At Georgia Tech, they're applying robots to materials handling

By ·

The future looks promising for robotic materials handling, according to Henrik Christensen, the Kuka Chair of Robotics at Georgia Tech. 

From where he sits, Christensen says we have a ways to go before robotic materials handling is commonly deployed. At the same time, he’s having conversations with a number of leading companies that are exploring the technology for their operations. One of those is a leading provider of wholesale groceries. In fact, a conversation with one of their executives sparked Christensen’s interest in applying robotics to materials handling.

“When I talked to one of their supply chain executives, he told me that only 20% of the logistics chain for food handling is automated,” Christensen says. “At the same time, about 70% of the cost of groceries is tied up in logistics and handling.”

The executive believed there is room to take out up to 10% of the cost of wholesale groceries through the successful application of automation. Given the amount of manual palletizing involved in building mixed SKU pallets, that seemed like a logical place to look. Christensen was intrigued.

Together with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Georgia Tech launched an annual student competition to do mixed palletizing. The students get real orders from grocery companies like Kroger and Walmart and design an algorithm to robotically build a pallet to deliver to a grocery store.

The designs are first run in a simulation environment; the best algorithms are then run on a robotic system at Georgia Tech. They are also benchmarked against the software that’s currently available from leading providers like, say, Kuka.

As to the competition winners, well perhaps, one day one of those solutions will be incorporate into a commercial package; or, one of the entrants may find themselves working in our industry, designing the next generation of materials handling robots.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for these technologies,” says Christensen. “It’s very clear that companies would like to automate more of there processes: they can build more stable pallets and it will make it easier to staff large distribution centers.”


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

Subscribe to Modern Materials Handling Magazine!

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Find out what the world’s most innovative companies are doing to improve productivity in their plants and distribution centers.
Start your FREE subscription today!

Latest Whitepaper
Peek Inside Trinchero’s New Automated Warehouse
When Trinchero Family Estates, one of the world's top wineries, consolidated its bottling and distribution with production, they knew they needed to ramp up speed and throughput. Partnering with Swisslog helped them achieve that goal—and more.
Download Today!
From the March 2017 Modern Materials Handling Online Issue
If the early attendee forecast is any indication, you may have already landed in Chicago for ProMat 2017 (April 3-6), the materials handling industry’s leading trade show and educational conference, sponsored by MHI.
Lawson Products: Automation that fits
Lawson’s multi-purpose distribution center
View More From this Issue
Subscribe to Our Email Newsletter
Sign up today to receive our FREE, weekly email newsletter!
Latest Webcast
2016 Warehouse/DC Operations Webcast: Confronting omni-channel complexity
During this webcast we’ll examine the current activities, trends, and best practices in warehouse and DC operations management and how companies plan to address complex issues associate with omni-channel fulfillment.
Register Today!
EDITORS' PICKS
2017 Productivity Achievement Awards
Modern’s annual Productivity Achievement Awards honor companies that have made exceptional...
Johnson & Johnson: A vision for automation
J&J Vision Care brings together a variety of automated technologies, including an innovative...

Using AGVs at LEDVANCE
The lighting manufacturer reaped savings by reducing maintenance costs and product damage, and using...
System Report: Sustainable Distribution at REI
Specialty outdoor retailer REI’s new distribution center brings together the next generation of...