Retailers and logistics companies are facing significant labor challenges, and are under pressure to deliver more value in less time. Many have embraced automation and have seen success with robot deployments within warehouses and distribution centers, whether to help fulfill e-commerce orders, or with loading and unloading of pallets or even picking-and-packing tasks.
According to a report from Research and Markets, warehouses are increasingly focusing on using automated systems — yet more than 80% today have no automation whatsoever. In light of the early success in warehouse automation, the natural question for many of these companies is, “What next?”
Companies are expanding in three dimensions: adding more of the same robots to sites that have seen productivity improvements, expanding to additional sites and warehouses, and looking at additional tasks within the warehouse, fulfillment or distribution center that can be automated.
For example, an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) that currently delivers an e-commerce order to a human at a packing station could instead send that order to a robot arm that specializes in pick-and-place tasks. This robot could then move the items to a conveyor belt, or pack the box itself, with a human likely needed to finish the order for final delivery. Closer to the loading dock, a de-palletizing robot arm could place cases onto a mobile robot platform for further delivery to storage shelves or replenishment areas. Such multi-step processes get companies to a more automated warehouse than just having a set of robots perform a singular task.
In addition to material handling, large spaces such as distribution centers need to be kept clean. Autonomous floor scrubbers or industrial vacuums can be deployed so workers can be assigned to higher-value jobs. Inventory drones with mobile bases check the warehouse to ensure that items aren’t misplaced.
So far, companies that manufacture robots have been kept busy just doing their initial deployments, or looking for new customers that haven’t yet deployed robots. A few robot companies have announced programs that pair their robots with a second vendor to showcase what multi-robot automation could look like in the future. Companies such as Locus Robotics and RightHand Robotics, GreyOrange and Vicarious have announced projects or partnerships aimed at automating a process with two different types of robots.
These partnerships, however, are limited to the specific pairing of companies that are making the announcement. For example, IAM Robotics and Tompkins have announced plans to automate the exit process on a unit sortation order-fulfillment system; if the companies deploying this solution use other robots (such as Fetch Robotics’s AMRs), these would not be able to work together. Integrating robots into a warehouse process can be tricky enough with one vendor, so imagine now two, three, or even four companies with different technologies.
What’s required is an orchestration solution that can handle the various types of robots. One aspect of this orchestration would be a technical interoperability protocol that allows robots from different companies to connect with an orchestration system. Various industry organizations, including the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), MassRobotics, and the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) are advancing proposals to enable robot interoperability.
Another trend worth noting is the integration between warehouse management system (WMS) software providers and robotics vendors to enable communication between different robot systems and other equipment. In its recent report on WMS vendors, Gartner noted that companies such as Blue Yonder, Körber, Reply, Softeon and Synergy Logistics are integrating robots with their larger software systems. The recent acquisition of Fetch Robotics by Zebra Technologies could signal closer integration between the latter’s warehouse execution system (WES) and the AMRs offered by Fetch.
In addition to these nascent interoperability standards, a multi-robot deployment will require deeper functionality. A new generation of enterprise software companies under the banner of RobOps (robot operations) have entered the market in recent years to enable a higher level of data-driven, multi-site and multi-function robot orchestration. These solutions offer robot-agnostic analytics that help improve performance, while providing robot operators the tools they need to manage, monitor, and orchestrate fleet operations. Collaboration between robotics companies, software vendors and end-users will lead to larger deployments that are flexible enough to adapt to equipment and process changes.
Florian Pestoni is co-founder and chief executive officer of InOrbit, a cloud-based robot operations platform.