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Supply Chain Transformers! How Robotics and Automation Are Changing the Game

At ProMat, people were saying: ‘That’s the future!’ I was saying: ‘That’s the present,’” says Rafael Granato, marketing director for MHI member PINC Solutions. He’s referring to the company’s drone systems, which can fly through a manufacturing or distribution center facility under their own direction to take inventory. Automation and robotics have come of age; they’ve reached the tipping point from being a solution for only the top rank of companies to a solution spreading throughout the entire industry.

One driving factor is the increasing sophistication of today’s robotic devices; instead of performing relatively simple, programmed tasks, they are able to assess variables, make decisions and choose the best course of action—such as changing their routing to avoid obstacles.

“There was a time when automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) were an elitist product, and really only applied within Fortune 50 companies—and even with those, only on a very plant-by-plant basis,” says Mark Longacre, marketing manager, automated systems for MHI member JBT Corporation. “Today, it’s a whole different environment. The product range has expanded a lot; that has really opened up these products to mid-size companies, and Fortune 50 companies are looking at enterprise-wide deployment.”

Currently, says Simon Drexler, director of products for MHI member Otto Motors (a division of Clearpath Robotics Inc.), “the material handling market in the United States alone is about $100 billion. About $20 billion of that is allocated to fork trucks, tuggers and industrial vehicles and their drivers. About $80 billion is people moving things around. With traditional technology, the AGV market is about $150 million of that $100 billion market. Then we have new technology available that’s part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0.”

“We’re making this transition from hard-coded rigid systems to autonomous flexible systems, where the behaviors of the systems are based on the sensory perceptions of the machines,” says Melonee Wise, CEO of MHI member Fetch Robotics. “If they are blocked on their path, they will recompute it, whereas traditional AGVs, would just stop and wait until the path was unblocked, which is not as efficient.”

By Sarah B. Hood

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