2019 Tech Trends: Using Robotics in the Supply Chain

William Craig, CPA – Senior Manager – Market Research 

Warehouse RobotsToday, autonomous things or AuTs are everywhere, but what is an AuT?  It could be robot, a vehicle, a drone, an appliance, an application, etc. that can be configured to perform tasks with little to no human intervention.  Interestingly, they have actually been an integral and very useful part of society for quite some time!  Consider automotive factory robots, military drones, automated teller machines, cruise control in cars, autopilot in planes, and more.  Today, we see newer innovations like a Roomba vacuum, a collision avoidance system in a car, a Fitbit watch, a Nest thermostat, an Alexa assistant (VPA), the Uber app, and the list goes on!

Major innovations in AuT will continue to accelerate. Consider Boston Dynamics, which developed a 4.9 feet/165 lbs. robot called Atlas that can jumprun, and lift boxes. Of course, Atlas can also do backflips!!! Check out Atlas in action at each of the links as the words just don’t do it justice! Much of the hardware for Atlas is made with 3D printing, saving weight and space.

The Supply Chain has seen and will continue to see major advancements using AuTs. For this month’s article, we are going to focus on the use of robotics in the supply chain. To start things off, here’s a short video of AuTs in action today at a Meijer warehouse.

In the 2018 MHI Association Annual Industry Survey Report (Deloitte Consulting LLC), robotics was ranked as the #1 technology by 65% of 1,100 manufacturing and supply chain industry leaders; surveyed for having the greatest potential impact for disruption, driving growth and creating a competitive advantage. There are many impressive benefits to back up these numbers.

The automotive industry has seen average annual production increases of 16% over the past 8 years, using industrial robots according to Bastion Solutions. Amazon is now using over 100,000 robots in their fulfillment centers, with robots reducing operating expenses by 20%, according to Business Insider. The cycle times at Amazon fulfillment centers were also cut from 60-75 minutes down to 15 minutes. In a separate study, the average order pick rate in an average warehouse can be increased to 300 picks/hour, when leveraging robotic sorters and conveyor vs. 60 to 80 picks/hour when done manually, according to Westernacher Consulting AG.

In the MHI survey, the top uses for robotics in the supply chain include:

  1. Picking, packing and sorting orders
  2. Loading, unloading and stacking
  3. Receiving and put-away
  4. Assembly operations
  5. Processing (welding, cutting, painting, etc.)

Some of the major types of robotics that can be leveraged in the warehouse and factory to automate these processes include:

  1. Automated Storage/Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
  2. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV)
  3. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR’s)
  4. Articulated Robot Arms

Automated Storage/Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)

ASRSAn AS/RS system automatically deposits and retrieves items to and from high capacity storage locations in a warehouse. It is sometimes referred to as goods-to-person fulfillment, since the picker doesn’t need to manually retrieve the order items in the warehouse, instead the AS/RS system brings the items to the picker. With some AS/RS systems, it will even bring the storage unit to the picker! There are various types of AS/RS systems, including Fixed Aisle, Horizontal Carousels, Vertical Carousels, Vertical Lift Modules, and more.

Using an automated storage retrieval system, companies can increase labor productivity by up to 85%, save 85% of otherwise wasted floor, and increase order accuracy by up to 99.99% according to the MHI Association. Other benefits include faster order fulfillment time and safety. Scroll down the MHI Association page to view an informative short video, showing various types of AS/RS systems used for different applications in action.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV)

An AGV is a portable robot that is used to automatically moves materials, inventory, supplies, etc. around a factory or warehouse based on preset routes. It typically navigates on a defined path using markers, wires, sensors, and other techniques. This type of work traditionally would be done by a forklift operator in a warehouse.

Here is a video of an AGV in action! Notice the track in the floor which guides the AGV.

AMRAutonomous Mobile Robots (AMR’s)

Although very similar to AGV’s, there is one important distinction. AMR’s have the ability to intelligently navigate a warehouse, not relying on preset routes. Using onboard sensors, software, maps, and other technology, they can flexibly interpret and react to a dynamic environment.

Check out this informative video of an army of AMR’s in action at an Amazon fulfillment center. Amazon calls them Amazon drive units.

Articulated Robot Arms

Articulating ARMArticulated robotic arms are robots with rotary joints, consisting or two or more interacting joints that can perform a variety of functions in a warehouse or factory. These include lifting, turning, moving, and manipulating a range of materials, inventory, supplies, etc. For example, they can be used to de-palletize received products to be sent to storage and to palletize orders for shipment. They can be used for welding of painting a car on an assembly line. Smaller articulating robot arms can be used for picking and packing orders.

Please check out this very informative WIRED video, which shows a vast array of articulating robot arms being used to build a Tesla Model S, including welding the frame, installing seats, mounting windows and more.

The Future

In the not too distant future, we will see warehouse workers, wearing robotic exoskeleton suits lifting up to 200 lbs. boxes with no assistance, according to Logistics Management. These innovations will reduce workplace injuries and accidents, which cost employers $60 billion+ annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And don’t forget about Atlas!

MarketWatch projects the global industrial robotics market to surpass $70 Billion by the end of year 2024. The automotive industry remains the top user of industrial robots with a 33% market share according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), followed closely by the electronics industry with 32%. Other major industry user includes metal and machinery, plastic and chemical products and food. The five largest markets for industrial robots include China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Germany, with annual sales increasing 114% over the past 5 years (IFR).

Robots, dronesautonomous vehicles, IoT and other technologies will continue to redefine the future of the supply chain.

In next month’s article, we discuss autonomous vehicles in the supply chain. Until then!

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Meet the Author

William Craig, CPA – Senior Manager – Market Research 

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