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I, Co-Bot

They’re collaborative, they’re autonomous, they’re intelligent. Fast-evolving technology in robotics—now often called “co-botics”—is allowing machines to pick, pack, tug and transport in ways they haven’t in the past. Cheaper than ever, more flexible than ever, they’re offering sensible solutions to the supply chain’s increasing need for speed.

* By Amy Drew Thompson *

Valvoline. Volleyball nets. Vegan cookbooks. Viagra.

A fairly disparate set of items, save the V, but they are similar in that consumers—lots of them—order millions of these products, often online.

A recent report by Forrester projected that e-commerce is expected to grow to 17 percent of U.S. retail sales by 2022. That’s a lot of Viagra.

And the reality, says Tom Galluzzo, founder and CEO of MHI member IAM Robotics, is that there simply aren’t enough people to do all the work.

“I’ve done the math on this,” he says, referencing the steady climb of e-tail. “Retail stores are just distribution centers where customers are doing the picking for free. American spend about 40 billion hours shopping for goods. If you were to pick, pack and ship all those items, it’s the equivalent of 20 million full-time jobs. There are not enough people in the entire U.S. unemployment pool to fill that.”

But technology, it would seem, is limitless.

In today’s supply chain, robotics is fast becoming “co-botics.” Machines are not only working effectively alongside their human co-workers, picking petite pill bottles for packaging and tugging heavy, unwieldy items across warehouses, they are working collaboratively with one another. Today’s robots are liberated from the track, freewheeling units, large and small, that can self-charge, self-navigate and know the difference between a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a jar of organic honey as they hand off with precision—mechanical football players at the snap.

And they’re moving just about as fast. In some cases, at 2 meters per second.

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According to the recently released 2018 MHI Annual Industry Report, “Overcoming Barriers to NextGen Supply Chain Adoption,” eight out of ten survey respondents believe these supply chains will be the predominant model within just five years. However, the report found that the adoption of some of these technologies was slower than originally reported when MHI started the annual report in 2014. The report cites three top barriers to adoption of these technologies: 1. Making the business case for NextGen supply chain investments. 2. Tackling the supply chain skills gap and workforce shortage. 3. Building trust and security in digital, always-on supply chains. This issue of MHI Solutions focuses on the adoption of these digital solutions, from best practices in robotics and artificial intelligence to blockchain and innovations in last mile delivery.

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