New developments in robotics are making the technology both more affordable and applicable to warehouse operations of many types and sizes, says Jim Liefer, chief executive officer of Kindred.
SCB: What do you see as the key robotics trends in the supply-chain industry this year?
Liefer: The trend is definitely moving to direct manipulation of physical product. By that I mean robots that understand unstructured themes, where to pick something up, how to identify it, and how to place it. That, I believe, is where everything's going.
SCB: What’s a situation that a robot can address now that it couldn't previously?
Liefer: A.I. is the key. It has enabled robots to work in a world full of exceptions — an environment that’s unpredictable.
SCB: But the robot's not there on its own. There are people in the vicinity as well. Can you explain the concept of collaborative robots?
Liefer: We design our system to keep the robot away from the human, but we still allow the human to interact with the robot when it does a task. It’s behind a cage or natural barrier, but the human is close by.
SCB: That’s a different approach from a lot of operations today, where robots and humans are working alongside one another. Why is it different here?
Liefer: The solution that we're providing aggregates units or products into distinct customer orders. When human do that function, they move very quickly. So the robot needs to as well. When you’re moving at high speed, it's different than walking down the aisle with a human and a robot, which is matching the human's speed. The human needs to be able to get out of the way of the robot.
SCB: How is the robot talking to the software? How does software integrate with the hardware?
Liefer: With the warehouse management system, there are traditional software paths, with APIs [application programming interfaces] and things like that. As for the robot, it’s doing everything that the A.I. is informing it to do. It becomes an extension of the A.I. that used to live in the virtual world, and is now extended into the physical world. And then finally, the robot, cameras and sensors are all peripherals that serve as are data collectors for the algorithm, providing input that makes the algorithm better the next time. That's how it's working today.
SCB: What’s required of people in the warehouse with robots these days in terms of training, expertise, I.T. skills and knowledge?
Liefer: For on-floor associates, their level of training is equal to other things they would have done before. They don't have to have a high level of understanding, training and education.
SCB: The benefits of automation in the warehouse are pretty clear to everyone, but it comes at a price. Top management has to be careful about deciding what to invest in. What are some of the considerations that a facility ought to take into account when deciding whether to automate, and what to automate?
Liefer: The number-one thing I would say is make sure it's a truly viable solution. Make sure that it’s at least close to on-par with what the human can do in that role. As for the cost of the system, we use a model where we provide robots as a service. We finance the cost of the robot, then deploy it to the customer, who pays a fee for its use. The customer isn’t having to lay out millions of dollars for a big solution.
SCB: What’s the single biggest challenge facing warehouses and distribution facilities today that automation can address?
Liefer: Any of those mundane, repetitive and unstructured tasks. There are moments where some sort of manipulation has to happen at the unit level. I believe that's where the A.I.-powered robotic solutions will be most engaged — to be able to help move product from one level of automation to another, and directly interact with the product at the niche level.
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