Robots prove their mettle in the warehouse

Leadership summit unites robotics leaders and newcomers in search of problems that need solving.

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Last month, the 8th Annual RoboBusiness Leadership Summit posted record attendance over three warms days in Pittsburgh, Pa. Home to Carnegie Mellon University and its famed Robotics Institute, the city is a strong contender for robotics capital of the United States, vying with Boston, last year’s RBLS host city, for that title. Unlike the early years of the summit, when presenters and attendees were largely focused on defense applications, this year’s event included some big reveals in the world of autonomous mobile robots for the healthcare, consumer, and manufacturing markets.

More than 400 attendees and 35 exhibiting sponsors at the event focused on moving robotic technology from the lab to commercialization, and advances in materials handling applications have already shown the success of this push. Researchers were urged to focus on developing solutions to problems, as opposed to designing advanced technologies for their own sake and then trying to shoehorn them into applications.

For instance, Kiva Systems’ approach to a discreet warehouse function (picking) yielded a technology worth nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to one of the largest distribution players in the world. Meanwhile, one attendee noted that an industrial robot designed to mimic the function of a human hand might be vastly over-engineered. After all, a human hand is intended for human life, with all the versatility that requires, whereas a robot in an industrial space need only excel at one task. Attendees reported that Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva shook the robotics world by proving two things: 1) There is real money to be made by introducing robotic technology into industrial applications. And 2) sometimes the simplest approach is best.

“We all thought that the industrial robotics market was pretty saturated, but it turns out there’s a lot of opportunity there,” said David Askey, chief business development officer for Energid Technologies, during a conference panel discussion. For instance, in food production, robots were once thought most valuable at the end of the line, for tasks like palletization. The opportunity Askey highlighted has seen robotic solutions spread upward through warehouses and factories to handle and process the actual food item, such as automated butchering and meat packing.

Inside the four walls, decision-makers might have become disenchanted with the promise of robotics, which has been the “next big thing in the next 10 years” for the past 50 years.

But RBLS proved there are more than just big hopes for robotics solutions in materials handling. Giant Eagle, a $10 billion grocery distributor, allowed attendees inside its 400,000-square-foot Pittsburgh DC for a closer look at semi-automated lift trucks that have helped that company stay ahead of the curve for the last five years. On the other end of the automation spectrum, C&S Wholsale Grocers has a facility with a fully automated case picking and robotic palletizer that builds store-ready pallets up to eight feet high.

Currently, technical hurdles are not what’s preventing the growth of robotics in warehousing, attendees agreed. The bigger challenge is the stigma of automation-related job loss. In the case of both semi-autonomous pallet jacks and fully automated picking packing and palletizing, automation has not resulted in job loss, but in relocating those associates to more value-added positions. In many cases, the best approach is to promote associates from within to assume responsibility for maintenance and operation of the new technology.

Conference participants pointed to systems integrators as crucial to the growth of warehouse robotics. It’s no small task for those integrators to become conversant in the myriad robotic solutions available to them and their clients, but the business cases for the technology are there to be made. Systems integrators can help make that case, but end-users must also be aware of the full range of solutions and their impact on labor and product quality. “Look at the potential for robotics before committing to a work cell layout,” said Askey. “The earlier a systems integrator or the right expert is brought into the purchase process, the more successful the customer will be. The biggest motivator should be the fact that competitors who are automating will win business.”

About the Author

Josh Bond, Contributing Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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