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Robotics: Take a hands-off approach

Robotic materials handling solutions are great at handling repetitive tasks while cutting costs, increasing throughput, and lifting a heavy burden off workers.
By Lorie King Rogers, Associate Editor
March 01, 2012

Almost 100 years ago, the word “robot” and the concept of machines working for people was introduced in the play “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” While the play doesn’t end well for people because the robots rise up and wipe out the human race, some say it set the stage for modern robotic solutions.

Today, robots are certainly changing the way we move materials. “When we look at how product moves, we see that robots can play a part in helping the flow of product through the entire supply chain,” says Tim DeRosett, director of marketing for the Motoman Robotics division of Yaskawa America.

Robotic solutions embody a variety of components, configurations and capabilities. And, they can be programmed to perform predictably, accurately and rapidly. “A robot is something that can perform a task without human intervention,” explains Mark Longacre, marketing manager for JBT Corp. “And if maintained and applied properly, a robot of any design can run around the clock.”

Since people cannot easily run around the clock, the need for efficiency is driving companies to look toward automation, says Ken Ruehrdanz, warehousing and distribution market manager for Dematic. And, since labor has a dramatic impact on an operation’s bottom line, automating certain tasks is one way to reduce cost while keeping an operation running efficiently.

The push toward efficiency is reflected, in part, by the increase in robotic applications in the materials handling sector. According to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), robotic applications in the materials handling sector grew 28% in 2011. This increase included a combination of autonomous mobile robotic solutions and fixed robots used for loading and unloading product.

Here’s a look at how autonomous, piece picking, and palletizing robotic solutions are picking up the pace for end users inside the four walls.

Autonomous mobile robotic solutions
Autonomous mobile robotic solutions are enhancing lean manufacturing processes by shuttling work-in-process and finished goods between locations. “Robots have played a major role in leaning manufacturing processes in production facilities, feeding product to the lines,” says John Dulchinos, president and CEO at Adept Technology and chair of the RIA’s Statistics Committee.

While these autonomous mobile robotic solutions have taken extra steps out the manufacturing process, the newest intelligent autonomous mobile robotic solutions are able to move goods independently, randomly and dynamically, and are starting to play a bigger role in warehouses and DCs.

Compared to mobile solutions that are guided by wires or follow magnetic tape paths, the newest incarnation of autonomous mobile robots move independently, making decisions on the fly. “It’s like the city bus versus the taxi cab. The bus moves around using a predefined route and doesn’t deviate from the path. The taxi, however, figures out on its own the best way to reach the final destination. You tell the robot where to go and it will go there because it knows the lay of the land,” says Dulchinos.

It knows the lay of the land because the information about the work area is gained by walking the robot around and mapping the facility or by programming the information into its computer system. Odometers, lasers and other technology allow it to know where it is at all times and avoid impact with people and pallet rack.

Each robot is connected to the operation’s network, so like the dispatcher, the system knows where every robot is, what it’s doing and where product is at all times. This information provides the flexibility to reallocate a unit at any time.

About the Author

Lorie King Rogers
Associate Editor

Lorie King Rogers, associate editor, joined Modern in 2009 after working as a freelance writer for the Casebook issue and show daily at tradeshows. A graduate of Emerson College, she has also worked as an editor on Stock Car Racing Magazine.

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