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Insider Q&A: Supporting the Human-Robot Connection

By helping to make both the human and the robot better than they could be individually, Zebra supports an environment where machines and humans can work side-by-side for the good of the entire organization.

Tom Bianculli
Chief Technology Officer
Zebra Technologies

What is your number one takeaway from Modex 2020?

There was a different dynamic at the show this year given the macro factors at play. As we’ve seen in past years, there was a continued strong emphasis on automation by those exhibiting solutions at MODEX. Walking the show floor, the idea of co-bots or human-assisted robots was an engaging theme. The automation offerings ran the gamut from fully automated forklifts to pallet-building robots to automated systems for unloading vehicles. Many of these solutions are aimed at addressing the increased volume and velocity that we’re seeing as a result of the growth of e-commerce and the on-demand economy. There were also numerous computer vision, machine vision and machine learning system providers at the show using their technology to help inspect, monitor and even guide autonomous systems.

What are the three key market trends from your perspective?

The first is multiple modalities of fulfillment, with a particular emphasis on how fulfillment is migrating to the retail store itself which is increasingly doing double duty as a retail shopping location and e-commerce fulfillment center. We’re also seeing more workers using one device for multiple use cases. For example, they may have an Android-based handheld device they use for inventory replenishment but then snap that same device into a wrist-mounted accessory allowing it to be used for a picking application. Finally, we’re seeing a focus on more effective management of both the upstream and downstream supply chain through the use of demand signaling, demand sensing and data analytics. Using these technologies, supply chains can react much faster and what used to take days can now be accomplished in hours.

How is Zebra reacting to these market trends?

We’re investing in several different areas right now. The first involves sensor-enabled infrastructure that can “see” what’s on the shelf at any given time. Zebra’s venture capital arm recently invested in Focal Systems, which makes shelf-mounted cameras. At the National Retail Federation expo (NRF), we introduced SmartSight, the retail industry’s first subscription-based robotic solution that turns data into corrective actions that improve front-of-store operations and enhances the shopper experience. We’re incorporating more vision capabilities and 3D sensing into our solutions along with location solutions for tracking pallets, equipment, and people.

We’re also coming up with new solutions that augment the human worker. For example, Zebra FulfillmentEdge software with the HD4000 heads-up display modernizes and optimizes warehouse workflows to meet the fulfillment needs of today’s on-demand economy increasing worker productivity by as much as 24 percent. FulfillmentEdge integrates existing real-time WMS data with real-time location information providing visibility into the location of workers, inventory and material handling assets. It then analyzes the information and transforms linear work orders into real-time workflows that enable workers to simultaneously pick multiple orders.

Finally, we’ve been working on intelligent automation through the integration of Fetch Robotics’ Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) and Zebra FulfillmentEdge software. The unique solution optimizes picking across multiple orders for piece, case, and pallet workflows. By dynamically optimizing and orchestrating the movement of warehouse workers and robots, FulfillmentEdge and Fetch AMRs enable collaborative picking for faster, more accurate fulfillment and improved workflows that allow front-line workers to spend more time in the aisle instead of manually moving material throughout a facility.

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