Are robots taking over the warehouse? Or are they "collaborating" with humans? Fergal Glynn, vice president of marketing with 6 River Systems, discusses the role of automation in distribution facilities.
Q: What’s the state of the art in the use of robots in distribution centers and warehouses today?
Glynn: They're being used for many different purposes, particularly e-commerce fulfillment, store replenishment, and service-parts picking.
Q: What are the robots actually doing in the warehouse?
Glynn: A collaborative robot works alongside a human, to help make that job faster or easier. Robots are helping associates to pick more quickly and accurately, and to interleave tasks such as picking and replenishment.
Q: Are the robots doing the picking, or telling the people where to pick?
Glynn: There are a lot of variations in the market. We’re working on a mobile pick cart that directs a user through the warehouse. The associate follows the robot, which shows with pictures and colors what to pick. The associate then scans the product, and the robot confirms that they picked the right item and count.
Q: What value does the robot bring to the operation?
Glynn: It allows you to get rid of the non-value-added walk – moving product from point A to B. And it uses software to intelligently group orders, so the associate walks in the aisle less. There are companies building robots that follow the person, and there's another scenario where a person is walking around and when they see a robot, they walk over and perform a task on that unit.
Q: Are there safety issues to overcome?
Glynn: When you have a piece of moving equipment that an associate is going to be working with all day, safety needs to be your number-one priority. We’re investing a lot in making sure that our robot is not only safe, but also that it's okay to work with. For example, if a robot is traveling down an aisle and a person stands in front of it, the robot is able to stop really quickly. Imagine a human is coming the wrong way down a one-way aisle, and a robot is going the correct way. Without thinking about this problem, you would probably program the robot to stop when it sees the person, who then might take a step back. What will the robot do then? It will drive a bit forward, and the person will take another step back. That would make the person feel very uncomfortable. So we need to think about how the robots and humans interact with each other, to create not only a safe environment, but also a comfortable one.
Q: What’s the endgame of this technology? Will we see more and more warehouses that are completely automated?
Glynn: To be able to automate something completely, you need to understand all the permutations. It’s a very difficult problem to solve. We're a long, long way from making that happen. Right now, companies are concentrating on how they can make a collaborative robot that helps associate become faster and better at their jobs.
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