Not Just for Manufacturing Anymore
Since the advent of the global robotics industry, the single largest area of use has been in the manufacturing sector. Repetitive tasks such as painting and welding that require precision are prime areas of robot use. In particular, robot use for many years became synonymous with the motor vehicle industry. Japanese companies were especially active in this arena, benefitting from the fact that some of the world’s leading robotics companies as well as motor vehicle producers were headquartered in the country, allowing for easy collaboration and process improvement. Even today, the motor vehicle industry accounts for the single largest share of global robot demand.
However, over the past two decades, robot use has spread to many other areas besides manufacturing. From sophisticated drones in war zones to medical robots in hospitals to milking robots in farms to vacuum cleaner robots in homes, robots are slowly becoming omnipresent.
Key factors that are allowing robots to do more than just simple retitive tasks include significant advances in software, greater mobility, and improved vision guidance via sophisticated cameras and sensors.
Applications in Warehousing, Distribution & Fulfillment
Material handling robots have been used in factories and warehouses for decades for basic tasks such as palletizing. Historically, they were only able to handle a limited range of functions and stock keeping units (SKUs). However, this situation has been changing rapidly as software and functionality improve rapidly .
Among common robot applications during warehousing, distribution and fulfillment include:
- Bin picking
- Palletizing and depalletizing
- Tote handling
- Material handling (e.g., via Automated Guided Vehicles -- AGVs)
- Fulfilling of more complex mixed SKU orders with variable dimensions, weights, packaging and locations.
In 2012, Amazon.com surprised the world with its $775 million acquisition of US-based Kiva Systems, a leading developer of warehouse automation systems and mobile fulfillment systems (MFS). However, such a development should have been expected, considering that Amazon probably has the world’s most complicated distribution and fulfillment system. The company directly and indirectly sells almost any product imaginable, and is known for its fast and efficient delivery system.
In early 2014, Amazon announced that by the end of the year, it would increase the number of robots in its warehouses from 1,000 to 10,000, without any corresponding reduction in employment. Each time Amazon introduces a robotic system in its warehouse, it requires months of planning and testing before deployment due to the massively diverse nature of its online product offerings. In November 2014, Amazon unveiled its latest generation robot driven warehouse for handling holiday season orders .
In the longer term, Amazon has plans to use drones to deliver products to consumers. Government regulation related hurdles are probably much more of a hindrance to the rapid realization of this goal in comparison to technological hurdles.
With consumers increasingly shopping online and expecting fast efficient delivery, robot demand in warehouses and distribution centers will only continue to expand. Learning from the experiences of companies such as Amazon and other large retailers (both solely web based ones and predominantly brick-and-mortar store based ones), robot manufacturers will continue to improve their offerings so that the process of virtually any complex order can be automatized from order reception to order fulfillment to order packaging to order shipping. Automated drone based order delivery will be the final step in this process, but is like over a decade away as a best case scenario.
 Symbotic.(n.d).The Evolution of Warehouse Automation. (Retrieved: Accessed – 12/19/2014) http://www.symbotic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Symbotic_Infographic_1116121.pdf
 Takahashi, Dean. (November 30, 2014 9:24 PM) Amazon unveils robot-driven warehouse for handling holiday orders. Retrieved From: http://venturebeat.com/2014/11/30/amazon-unveils-robot-driven-warehouse-for-handling-holiday-orders/
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