Most mobile robots are designed to perform a limited range of tasks, and many warehouses have several separate automation systems, each based on robots from different vendors and working independently. The next step in warehouse automation is the ability to integrate mobile robots from different vendors, enabling heterogenous fleets of robots to work together seamlessly. The benefit of running such fleets is that it enables much wider and more capable automation within the warehouse, increasing the market and potential applications for robot technology.
Multi-robot orchestration software links up mobile automation systems in a way that hasn’t been previously possible. Logistics companies implementing such technology have been able to increase storage capacity by 200% to 400%, improve picking accuracy to 99.9%, and increase picking efficiency to more than 1,000 pieces per hour per picking station.
However, while the benefits to end users are clear, those for mobile robot vendors are less so. By working in partnership with a third-party multi-robot orchestration technology provider, companies can give vendors distinct advantages over their competitors.
There are two important ways that multi-robot orchestration software helps grow the mobile robot market. The first is that it makes completely new automation systems possible. That’s because only a few vendors currently make every type of robot. So if you can combine robots from different vendors, you immediately open up automation opportunities that never existed before.
The second market growth opportunity is focused on individual mobile robot vendors. Multi-robot orchestration technology can open the door for vendors to quickly enter industries or applications in which they historically don’t have strength. A third-party can include their robot in a wider integrated offering, while expanding the addressable market for individual mobile robot vendors. Some vendors, for example, are focused exclusively on e-commerce. There are large opportunities in manufacturing that they have less experience in or scope to develop, yet in practice their technology could easily be adapted for manufacturing environments. Working with a multi-robot orchestration partner can help them to do this very quickly and easily.
For one mobile robot vendor to directly integrate with others isn’t always easy, as the software tends to be designed specifically for its own products. Adapting that software to support products from other vendors is a big challenge. It’s also commercially sensitive, because the developers of multi-robot orchestration software need access to the interfaces of all the robots.
In such cases, a third-party technology provider can offer an objective stance, along with a series of non-disclosure agreements with each mobile robot vendor they cooperate with. This means that robot vendors can securely grant access to their interfaces, while keeping their commercial secrets safe from competitors.
In addition, although many mobile robot vendors have multiple robot models, with some expanding their ranges all the time, technology is moving very fast. It can therefore be difficult for vendors to offer all types of robots and capabilities that customers may demand, given with the expense of R&D, manufacturing, marketing and other business functions. Multi-robot orchestration software enables end users to choose best-of-breed products, rather than having to buy everything from one supplier that might not have an optimal robot for every application. If customers know they can do this, they’re more likely to experiment with larger and more diverse robot fleets, and choose the best product for every application.
It's important to be aware there are two distinct approaches when it comes to multi-robot orchestration systems. In the first (low-level control), the software integrates directly with the robots, talking to the machines and warehouse control system via a “universal translator” that’s able to communicate with robots from many vendors. This approach works well in cases where mobile robots have a lot of navigation capabilities and on-board software, such as point-to-point material transport.
In the second approach (high-level control), the software talks to a third-party fleet manager, which “controls” various proprietary fleet managers. The fleet-management system doesn’t have to be reintegrated with an existing fleet of autonomous mobile robots or automated guided vehicles, as this can be more expensive. Both approaches work without bypassing any systems or changing the original robot settings, but rather build a unified robot control system alongside existing warehouse control and third-party fleet-management systems.
The more mobile robot vendors that a third- party can work with, the more the market can potentially grow. Having more robot options expands the range of new automation systems that can be sold into new industries and new applications. The ideal partnership between a mobile robot vendor and third-party multi-robot orchestration software company involves deep cooperation that allows them to work together closely, while continuously evolving and exploring new automation systems.
Michael Wang is chief operating officer and co-founder of CoEvolution.
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