The robots are coming - October 2016

The idea of mechanical servants goes right back to ancient mythology, but the past few years have seen advances in the technologies that are moving from automation to robotics.

Just as our children can’t picture a world without computers, it is likely that their children will feel the same way about robots.

DHL is currently testing two collaborative robots on co-packing and value-added tasks in its warehouses. The robots, called Baxter and Sawyer, have been working on a number of tasks, including: assembly, kitting, packaging and pre-retail services. In particular it is looking at how to integrate the robots into a number of operational sites globally.

When Amazon revealed plans for a new distribution centre at Tilbury on the eastern edge of London, it highlighted the fact that it would be equipped with robot technology when it opens in Spring 2017.

The online retail giant sees innovation in its fulfilment operations as critical to driving the growth of the business. It is determinded to get costs down and sees robots as part of that process.

It acquired US-based robotics specialist Kiva in 2012. Now renamed Amazon Robotics, it is developing machines that help speed order processing time and reduce walking time by moving the shelves to employees, as well as saving space with 50 per cent more items to be stowed per square foot. The technology is already in use as its Dunstable and Doncaster facilities.

And it is not just in the warehouse that robots are being tested. The first Starship delivery robots are set to take to the streets in Germany, Switzerland, the UK, and USA in the next few weeks.

They will deliver groceries and online purchases to consumers starting in August/September. The robots are specifically designed for deliveries within a two to three mile radius and are expected to deliver goods in 15 to 30 minutes.

The robots can drive autonomously while being monitored by human operators in control centres.

The Starship robot weighs 15kg and can carry goods up to 13kg. It runs at a top speed of 6km per hour and is almost entirely self-driving. It drives autonomously using computer vision and GPS, but in the short term, needs to be human-assisted when crossing the street or passing areas with road construction.

Duncan Boyd, Manager at Crimson & Co, points out that traditionally, automated systems in warehouses are ‘fixed’. “This means that the machinery only operates within strict parameters, performing largely repetitive tasks. With robotic technologies, a greater deal of flexibility can be achieved across a number of tasks. The small, difficult, complex and repetitive tasks that humans have typically performed could soon be performed by robots, who are less prone to error or tiredness.”

Business cost

As always in logistics, cost will be a key issue in the adoption of robots, but availability of labour is also a consideration.

Crimson’s Duncan Boyd says that a single robot working in a picking and organising environment could cost as much as $34,000, with an extensive development process required prior to purchase.

“However, it’s worth looking at the bigger financial picture that robots present. When compared to an average payroll of an employee in a picking environment, £34,000 dosen’t seem all that much especially when considering total cost of ownership over a number of years. Given how much easier it should be to make quick changes to robots compared to large-scale automation processes, they make a sound financial choice over more traditional auotmated systems.

“Additionally, it’s worth considering the other costs that are off-set by integrating robotic technologies. The costs of error, repetitive non-value adding activities and costs of harm are completely removed with a robotic workforce. These factors together point to robots posing as interesting capital investment proposition for modern businesses,” says Duncan.
To read the full coverage download the September issue of Logistics and Supply Chain magazine

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