In the past, we thought of autonomous robots—whether in the workplace, the warehouse or in our personal, everyday lives—as the stuff of science-fiction. In recent years, they’ve come to fruition, but they seem reserved for the innovative giants of industry; namely, Amazon. While other big retailers are also looking to cut supply chain and warehousing costs, no other company appeared to be as invested in the future as the Seattle-based tech titan.
No longer. Despite Amazon previous appearing to corner the market by purchasing Kiva Systems, a company that at the time made the best warehouse-servicing robots on the market, the space has expanded, and all kinds of businesses are looking to get in on the action.
Related Article: Drones and Robots in the Warehouse Are Assistants, For NowWriting for Forbes, Steve Banker says that in 2009, he expected the conservative warehousing industry would not adopt robot technology en masse until 2025. But in his own words:
“I was far too conservative. Amazon is using over 30,000 of these robots in their facilities. Unfortunately, for the rest of the industry, Amazon is no longer selling the Kiva robots, renamed Amazon robots, to the industry. They are using all of their production internally.
However, there are competitors that have emerged to fill the void. And with the ongoing, rapid growth that e-commerce continues to place on existing fulfillment networks, these new solutions are emerging just in time.”
Banker goes on to list a number of Amazon robot competitors, which will look to serve Amazon’s competitors in the fight to remain competitive by increasing efficiency and cutting costs. While there are a couple of issues with this plan—one apparently being potential patent violations (Banker says that shouldn’t be a problem) and the other being pushback from the human labor that feels they’re being replaced.
But like it or not, we are moving into the future, where robots will simply be a better option in the warehouse than humans, for a number of reasons.
Improvements to robot technology is making them more versatile
One robot-making competitor are made by Symbotic LLC, which is making its pitch to grocery chains and retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. A few factors separate Symbotic bots from other options:
- Freedom of movement: While many other warehouse-automation systems rely on robots that are either bolted to the floor or confined to fixed routes, Symbotic robots can travel “untethered” among storage racks, up and down aisles as needed.
- Coordination: They can communicate with more conventional robots that do simpler tasks, creating a symphony of efficiency.
They cut the three big costs: Labor, time and real estate
Warehousing is both high-cost and low-margin, which means that cutting down the “big three” of labor, time and real estate is crucial going forward. Robots do all three.
Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of grocery-warehouse workers alone who work to move inventory from trucks to pallets and back again. Symbotic says its system “allows food retailers and wholesalers to cut distribution-center labor costs by 80 percent.”
When it comes to time, some robots in the past have had issues dealing with “chaotic” environments, making humans best-suited for fast-paced warehouses—and to some extent that’s still true. But Symbotic bots, when placed in a specific multi-leveled environment called “The Box,” are able to move at 25 miles an hour, in the dark, while ferrying boxes back and forth to areas with their simpler, less-mobile brethren. It won’t be long before most warehouses are designed with robots in mind, making “The Box”-like environments more common and more effective.
Speaking of which, when Target planned on building a new distribution center in California to handle more volume, they found Symbotic’s solution, while costly, could create warehouses that are 25 to 40 percent smaller than traditional warehouses.
The U.S. is already lagging behind on this front
There is hesitation to go all-in on automation investing, since creating all new warehouses and distribution centers even partially staffed by robots is very expensive (automating a warehouse can cost up to $100 million alone). But this isn’t exactly “the future,” something that can be tackled in time. It’s already here, for some big companies based in the U.S. but also in Europe:
For evidence robots work in food warehouses, U.S. distributors can look to Europe, where land and labor costs are higher and automation in food distribution is more common.
“In the long run, if you don’t automate, eventually…it will really limit your supply chain,” said Norman Leonhardt, head of sales for Witron, the German automation firm. “America is moving towards it. There aren’t enough young people coming into the workforce who really want to work in warehouses.”
Automation doesn’t necessarily mean free-wheeling machines—Witron, from the above quote, does not use autonomous robots. That word means a lot of things in the context of warehouses—it can mean drones, for example.
The kind of major investment that is needed to move towards autonomous robots is likely still out of reach for many smaller and medium-sized businesses. But at the very least, this trend speaks to the need for inventory management systems that now help warehouses run more efficiently. The margins in the industry are so slim that there simply isn’t room anymore for things like out-of-whack-inventory turnover ratio.
With that in mind, any company that requires supply chain management should make sure they’re as far into the automation game as possible. That means not just barcode scanners/labels (and yes, warehouses need barcodes), for example, but intelligent software that can help analyze bigger and wider data, in order to leap the increasingly large hurdle that is ecommerce. That area of retail will only keep growing, and it will be up to businesses small and large to meet unceasing, round-the-clock demand with technology that updates databases on the fly and keeps the inventory coming, as needed.
For years, it felt like Amazon was one of, if not the only, company that could push retail into the future. But that future is here, and thanks to a proliferation of autonomous robots (and other technology) in the warehouse, everyone can start taking part in building a more efficient business world
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