Robots were all the rage at MODEX this year. Even before you walked through the doors of the World Congress Center in Atlanta you could tell robotics would be a major theme—the show guide alone had 47 mentions of it.
What’s going on in robotics right now that warrants such an outpouring of interest from the material handling industries? What forces are converging to unlock the potential value of robots? Let’s take a look.
A Shift in Market Forces: Amazon, Assortment, and Speed
The first major influencing force is loosely referred to as the “the Amazon effect.” Business practices are shifting in response to changes in how end customers buy, with the continuing trend toward “ecommerce expectations” forcing even traditional companies to change their ways in the face of market pressure.
The shift to ecommerce is compounded by emerging customer sentiment for assortment and speed, spurring a proliferation of low-volume items that still have a high service level expectation. This is the classic ‘long tail’ defined by Chris Anderson in 2006. Supply chains must now develop capabilities that fly in the face of their traditional high-volume, low variability distribution processes.
The new market forces extend beyond ecommerce. One well-known clothing manufacturer at MODEX traditionally shipped cases and packs of underwear to stores at high volume. Now it does individual piece picking to consumers. The staff has created an entirely new workflow for outbound distribution to pick and ship individual pairs of underwear. They are not alone; to meet the demand of ecommerce consumers, many companies are developing processes to pick and ship pieces or eaches. It’s very hard to automate sufficiently to handle this high-mix, high-variability flow. Lacking a suitable option, companies have been forced to throw people at these processes.
Happily, a new generation of robots—autonomous, flexible and collaborative robots—can handle a high mix flow. Robots work with people to drive efficiencies in processes that have traditionally been immune to automation. At MODEX we saw a new generation of robots diving into this void to meet the challenge.
Robot Maturity Creates Interesting Math
Enabling technologies are maturing, trying to keep up with the accelerating shift in market expectations. The building blocks of robotic hardware are continuing to get better, faster and cheaper. Emerging software disciplines around machine learning are making the hardware smarter.
For example, high-resolution cameras and LIDAR have become commercially practical for robot self-guidance. Today’s onboard computing power can process tens of thousands of sensor points, allowing robots to shake off physical tethers and move about on their own. This is a major leap forward in deploying robots in warehouse and distribution applications. No longer tied to wires or waypoints, and fully aware of their environment, self-guided robots can now work alongside humans in existing spaces, opening up the opportunity for true collaboration.
Today the choice is not humans or robots, it’s humans and robots. We’ve arrived at a point where 1 + 1 = 3.
Maturing technology means it is no longer cost-prohibitive to apply robots to lower volume work streams. The machine learning ‘smarts’ of the new generation of robots can handle more variability in tasks. The ability to collaborate with humans coupled with significant intelligence creates a low-cost, highly flexible automated solution that meets the needs of the long tail items in the supply chain.
The Future Belongs to the Efficient
Since before the introduction of the production line—in other words, forever —the supply chain has been under pressure to reduce the cost of material handling. We are talking about labor. Workers are hard to find, expensive to train, and difficult to keep. Every year, seasonal surges in volume drive the scarcity of trained workers over the top.
At the same time, private equity ownership is changing businesses. Because equity ownership drives efficiencies and is not constrained by “the way it’s always been done” there’s a growing appetite to explore innovation. And that is driving new forms of automation.
When robots are deployed collaboratively with humans, efficiency increases by 2 to 6 times. Instead of “throwing people” at seasonal shifts in volume, robots can be dropped into existing distribution environments alongside the people with no need to extensively re-engineer existing processes. Robots can do the work humans don’t want to do or aren’t suited to faster, cheaper and with higher quality. Companies see robots as a key enabler.
Our MODEX Takeaway
It looks like we are on the verge of a robotic revolution in the supply chain. Converging market forces, emerging technologies, and increasing business pressure to automate are creating fertile ground for adoption. Many of the robotic applications on display at MODEX automate existing applications (autonomous floor cleaners, autonomous picking carts, etc.), which are incremental improvements, not game changers. There were also pieces of solutions on display (robotic hands, vehicles). There’s no question that some of the capabilities being developed are solutions in search of the right problem.
The next shift—the big shift—will happen when technology automates use cases that break new ground in autonomy, changing the way humans work in ways formerly dreamed of only in science fiction.
Robots appear to be on the cusp of an exciting breakout. Effective use cases are being put into place, and when the material handling world realizes what is possible, the adoption of robotic systems within supply chain automation is set to explode.