When Digit spends an afternoon unloading boxes from a trailer in 100-plus-degree heat, the co-workers never hear a complaint. Digit, a blue and white humanoid robot, is designed to handle difficult, vulnerable and dangerous tasks in warehouses.
The robot’s movements, inspired by years of studying how birds walk, include a slight sway in its frame when it’s at rest, dispelling the irritating stillness that bothers humans. It also does not speak, as the voice recognition technology is not yet advanced enough.
said Jonathan Hirst, chief technology officer and founder of Agility Robotics, the company behind Digit.
Robotics and automation are not new to logistics; Conveyor belts, scanners, and other innovations have helped automate and accelerate an industry obsessed with speed for decades. But the pace of investment and change — fueled by a pandemic-era e-commerce boom, tight labor market and fragile supply chain — has picked up in recent years. Experts say robots will change the way warehouses are operated and designed.
“It’s a golden age we’re entering,” said Ty Brady, chief technology officer, Amazon Robotics. The e-commerce giant, which helped push the industry toward automation in 2012 with the acquisition of robotics company Kiva Systems, has deployed more than half a million robot units, including Proteus, its first fully autonomous mobile robot.
Business organizations have a different perspective. Technology can make jobs safer and more secure, but the industry is too focused on using it as a cost-saving measure, said Shahryar Kaosji, executive director of the Warehouse Workers Resource Center, a California nonprofit group.
“It has always wanted to reduce labor costs,” he said, “and reducing human labor is something the industry has seen as a way to save money for decades.”
According to Surveys conducted by the Materials Handling Institute, an industrial trading group. The goal is mechanical coordination, whereby a team of robots, driven by sophisticated software and artificial intelligence, can move boxes and products in a seamless environment.
“I’m concerned for those owners who don’t,” said Eric Nieves, CEO of Plus One Robotics, which teamed up with Yaskawa America to bring robotic arms to the FedEx sorting facility in Memphis. “Even today, a lot of warehouse is rack and cart and clipboard. They just won’t be able to keep up.”
Billions are being invested by big players who are keen to stay ahead of the curve. Walmart, for example, recently announced a deal with Symbotic to bring its system of belters, cutters, and autonomous vehicles to all 42 of the retailer’s major sorting facilities.
Amazon, which accounted for 38 percent of botnet investment In the industry last year, he announced in April a $1 billion industrial innovation fund to support robotics companies such as Agility. Grocer Kroger opened five of 20 planned warehouses that are equipped with Ocado’s automated system to pack and ship fresh groceries.
The seeds for the increase in warehouse robots were sown during the 2008 recession, when automakers, which relied heavily on robots, fell into a deep and prolonged recession. Many of the current innovators have a background in the automotive industry and see logistics as ripe for innovation.
But unlike assembly line manufacturing, warehouses require a great degree of flexibility. Only recently have systems like vision and artificial intelligence become cheap and powerful enough to sort through the tens of thousands of different products that flow through an e-commerce warehouse. This technological leap is part of a larger adoption of robots: The industry saw a 28 percent jump in purchases from 2020 to 2021, according to Automation Development Association.
The technology is now more affordable and pervasive in the industry, beyond big players like Walmart and Amazon, said Reuben Scriven, a senior analyst at Interact Analysis who covers warehouse automation. He expects a 25 percent increase in robotics and automation investments this year alone.
Real estate companies are also investing in robotics startups. For example, Prologis, an industrial giant with a global warehouse network, has poured tens of millions of dollars into robotics companies through its Prologis Ventures fund.
“Netflix is the only company that can detect streaming video, and then suddenly it’s not,” said Zack Stewart Rogers, a professor at Colorado State University who focuses on logistics and warehousing and who sees an emerging middle class of bot users in the industry. “Other companies will start to catch up with Amazon.”
There is a growing demand for person-to-person bots by companies like Fetch and Locus. These so-called cobots, which can look like bin-carrying Segways, move back and forth between workers throughout the facility. With the cost of raw materials as high as steel, these robots are cheaper and faster to deploy than automated conveying systems. Some companies have even introduced “robots as a service” business models to rent out these machines to warehouse operators.
Many industry analysts add that the increased interest in robotics stems from a tight job market that is due to the high turnover rate and competitive wages in other fields. Automation is one of the levers companies can pull to tackle the problem.
Robots will not replace workers in the near term, Scriven said, but rather will make them more efficient and productive. Humans will be crew chiefs, commanding and maintaining teams of robots.
Bots can help with recruitment, said William O’Donnell, managing director of Prologis Ventures.
“It will improve the quality of experience for the workforce because instead of doing a manual command by rote, people will learn how to manage the robot to keep it up and running,” he said. “It will create a career path and a more developed skill set.”
Mr Kausgee, a worker advocate, said workers have not necessarily seen significant benefits in robotics developments. Investment in new technologies will need to involve workers to ensure that job development does not leave old workers behind.
He said that working at the speed of machines would overwhelm employees. “It’s basically a conveyor belt problem, like Lucy Ricardo with chocolate He said in “I Love Lucy”. “If your machines lead the pace, keep up with what the machine decides is your pace.”
James H. Rock, CEO of Seegrid, which makes autonomous mobile robots that move across warehouse floors, said warehouse builders and operators are already asking for advice on how to optimize new spaces for the next generation of robots.
He believes “lights out” warehouses — run by robots around the clock without the need for air conditioning or lighting tuned to human needs — will arrive in three or four years. He said many in the industry saw the benefits of increasing efficiency and reducing costs and worker accidents.
It is unclear how much robot efficiency gains will affect overall warehouse space demand. Symbotic, for example, claims it can deliver the same amount as traditional warehouse operations in half the space. Human and robot tend to take up the same amount of space on the warehouse floor, but one only needs a break room.
The biggest challenge is the aging of space in the industry: A third of warehouses are more than 50 years old, with 70 percent constructed before the 21st century, according to a report from real estate services firm Newmark. Owners do not usually make these investments themselves; Large renters and retailers tend to fund robotics and automation improvements.
Depots will need to be wired to meet greatly expanded power needs and charging stations, as well as more advanced wireless and 5G networks to allow the fleet of machines to connect. Newmark found that energy use in the US industrial sector will Growing more than twice as fast as any other sector in real estate in the coming decades.
“We’re building pretty much the same building,” said Steve Cross, regional partner at Transwestern, a warehouse-focused developer. “A public vanilla building that can accommodate as many tenants as possible. But now they are using two or three times the power of the previous generations of repositories.”
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