While preparing for MODEX in March, Dean Elkins, covice chair of The Robotics Group at MHI, felt confident that attendees would be pleasantly surprised by the technology on display. And for fulfillment centers dealing with surging order volume, SKU proliferation, consumer demand for prompt delivery and a dearth of workers, those technological advances couldn’t come soon enough.
Elkins, segment leader for material handling at MHI member Yaskawa Motoman, said the robotics industry has made significant strides in short order, largely due to advances in gripper technology, artificial intelligence, machine vision systems and warehouse management software that communicates with robots. As a result, end users were purchasing robots at a record pace, a trend that’s likely to continue as long as hourly wages keep rising and talented workers remain in short supply.
Last year, sales of industrial robots in North America set a record at 39,708 units, a 28% increase over 2020, according to the Association for Advancing Automation. Likewise, 2022 promises to be a big year for the industry.
“These are exciting times,” said Elkins, who jokingly refers to robots as “steel-collar workers.”
“The labor shortage is really what’s fueling this surge in robotics adoption,” he added. “It’s almost as if COVID-19 gave manufacturers a technology year to really refine things, and I think the buying public is going to be very impressed by what they see this time.”
Crystal Parrott, chair of The Robotics Group, said the newest robots are capable of performing a greater variety of tasks in warehouses, including palletizing, depalletizing, mixed-case depalletizing, high-speed sortation, order picking and packing. Instead of transporting racking to human order pickers stationed at work cells, robots can now pick many orders themselves.