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Warehouse robots: What you need to know as the market ramps up

July 31, 2018
Sheila Kennedy says smarter, faster robots are changing the game for materials handling and transport.

Buoyed by developments such as machine learning and computer vision, today’s robots are safely and efficiently performing picking, replenishment, bin handling, packaging, palletizing, and counting tasks alongside or above humans in warehouses and distribution centers.

Autonomous storage and retrieval

Robotic automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRSs) can introduce efficiencies in picking and replenishment. Any authorized device with a browser can be used to display and control the ASRS robots from Voodoo Robotics. A web-based user interface displays the ASRS in 3D and provides real-time feedback on the robot’s movements. Complete robotic systems are designed, simulated, and run using the company’s proprietary warehouse descriptive language.

“Our ASRS has a very powerful path-planning engine that will not only take into account which actions to perform in what order but also all of the inventory information,” says Trevor Blumenau, CEO of Voodoo Robotics. “The path-planning algorithm optimizes the process of getting all of these items to the relevant players in the shortest amount of time, including moving objects out of the way in order to get to other objects.”

The Swift mobile manipulation robot from IAM Robotics has interchangeable end effectors, enabling both ASRS and vacuum picking functions. The robot uses an articulated arm with RapidVision technology, a Flash product scanner, and on-board sensors to perform picking, bin handling, replenishment, or goods-to-person transfer at human-level speeds.

Swift works “in areas that were meant for a person to walk around and pick items,” explains Tom Galluzzo, founder and CEO of IAM Robotics. “It uses its own ability to see, to navigate around, and manipulate items,” he says. “The only thing we have to do is to make sure the items are outside of the box that they were shipped in and that the robot has been taught what the items look like.”

Robotic ground and air vehicles

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can provide flexibility in the warehouse while enhancing workforce capabilities. VirtualConveyor AMRs from Fetch Robotics move parts, pallets, cartons, and other objects. Examples include CartConnect, which picks up and delivers carts, and RollerTop, which independently receives from and delivers to fixed conveyances in addition to transporting items. Fetch also offers AMRs for inventory tracking and counting.

“Safety is an utmost concern,” says Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, noting that Fetch AMRs navigate in warehouses or manufacturing areas to avoid obstacles such as forklifts, people, and other vehicles. “The robots don’t just stop when the obstacle is present,” she says. “They actually detour from the preplanned path and recompute a new path in a safe manner.”

LocusBots from Locus Robotics are AMRs designed to help optimize e-commerce order fulfillment and better adapt to volume growth and seasonal peaks.

Technology Toolbox

This article is part of our monthly Technology Toolbox column. Read more from Sheila Kennedy.

One key way the Locus system improves warehouse productivity, says Bruce Welty, co-founder of Locus Robotics, is by selectively choosing orders in the warehouse management system that are clustered in close proximity to one another, thus increasing the “pick density” and minimizing the robot’s travel path. “This also minimizes the worker walking time, as pick locations are closer together and a worker can pick significantly faster,” he says.

A startup called Doxel offers small AMRs designed specifically to save construction time and money. Using LiDAR sensing and deep-learning algorithms, Doxel robots audit construction sites at the end of the day, identify errors, and notify managers instantly to enable rapid corrective action.

PINC Air (an aerial inventory robot) from PINC Solutions automates the manual, repetitive tasks that humans typically don’t enjoy, such as inventory counting. PINC Air couples drone technology with advanced optics, RFID, and barcoding sensors to automate specific tasks, thus generating efficiencies and providing an opportunity for humans to do more value-added tasks, such as addressing exceptions found by the robots.

“We focus on the 90% of all inventory that is stationary on shelves, whether it’s in a plant, a warehouse, or a storeroom,” says Matt Yearling, CEO of PINC Solutions. “We sync the physical world to the digital world, because we’re moving sensors on a self-contained autonomous robot that looks at stationary inventory and can understand what it is and exactly where it is – even in hard-to-reach spaces.”

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