Flexible Automation, Robotics and Autonomous Vehicles in Warehousing

Flexible Automation, Robotics and Autonomous Vehicles in Warehousing

Interest in automatic solutions is rising and there’s a perception that this is where the industry is headed. But questions about ROI, applications and integration are slowing down adoption.

* By Fiona Soltes *

Robotics, flexible automation, autonomous vehicles and the like are no longer just something “everyone else” must be doing. Offerings and awareness have continued to increase, especially as the perceived shortage of qualified and affordable labor continues.

“It’s still fairly early,” said Pat Davison, director of standards and manager of The Robotics Group (TRG) of MHI. “There’s a perception that this is where the industry is headed. But there is still either trepidation or concern from the user community about ROI, or applicability, or the capital investment it would take to deploy automation solutions. That’s opposed to the current or traditional situation of effectively just hiring more labor to ramp up in capacity, or ramp up due to a holiday season. I think there’s definitely an interest, but the applications available still aren’t widely known or commonly deployed, so there are questions on how best to proceed.”

As a result, he said, we’re still not close to “lights out” manufacturing with completely automated processes.

Mike Futch, president of MHI member Tompkins Robotics, said any thought related to where we actually are “depends on who you ask.”

“The fact of the matter is, it’s progressing very rapidly,” Futch said. “The increased capabilities of robotic automation and the lowering of costs have created a new tool that we can use in the evolution of supply chain distribution, warehousing and order fulfillment.”

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been around for decades, Futch said, and many new technologies are building from that platform. The addition of functionalities such as arms and grippers allow them to be used in new and creative ways.

The majority of robots being deployed in distribution centers today are of the collaborative variety, Futch said, meaning they can interact with humans—but if one of those humans gets into the robot’s arc of motion, the robot will retract. “If a person stops in front of one of these robots, the robot will stop and go around them,” Futch said. They’re designed to work with people rather than instead of, “and that’s a requirement going forward.”

Another change he’s seeing is related to the speed of deployment. Systems can roll off a truck and begin operations much faster these days than in the past—especially if integration has been done in advance. It’s also more likely that robotic solutions can be deployed on a small scale and then grown into a fleet as needed, he said.

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