Factory Automation Robots - Building, Picking, and Packing

Posted by Chuck Harrell on Oct 28, 2014 11:25:44 AM

robotpackagingAlthough the term 'robot' was originally invented in 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Capek in his play RUR where he defined robota statute labor, the idea of an automation that would do our bidding dates back to somewhere around 3 B.C. in China where allegedly an engineer called Yan Shi presented the king with a life-size human-shaped figure of his mechanical handiwork. Despite there popularity in fiction, it's been far harder to replicate the workings of the human form than was ever imagined. However, there have been some interesting developments from robot camel jockeys in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, to replace small children to robotic waiters and kitchen staff at the Robot restaurant in Harbin, China.

The first industrial robots began their life in 1938, however, it wasn't until 1954 that the first robotics patents were filed and 1956 unimation robots or programmable transfer machines were used to transfer objects from one place to another. By 1973, the world's first commercially available all electric microprocessor controlled robots were being used in Sweden to bend and polish pipes in the same year the first articulated robots with six electromechanically driven axes was built. These robotic arms reached maturity in 2005 and today the future towards smaller versions that can work in bench tops to help with precision tasks like dentistry and building machines were once humans only had the level of detail and speed needed.

Distribution Centers (DCs) are massive warehouses that receive, inspect, and store goods for later picking, packing, and shipping to end-users, re-distributors, or retails outlets. Products can be everything from books, pharmacy goods, clothing, office goods, food, drinks, shoes, produce, household items, pet supplies, to diapers and quantities can be one or two individual units 20 to 100 plus cases.

Driving the expansion and change in DCs are (1) online sales and consumer expectations of speedy delivery, (2) enhanced data manipulation capabilities, multidimensional processing, and integration of new-tech mobile robotics into material handling, (3) proof that goods-to-man methods saves money, reduces labor, and increases productivity, and (4) a current need to develop more cost-efficient centers (caused by delays and skittishness to make capital investments during the economic crisis). E-commerce sales are growing at an annual compounded growth rate of 8.5% - double that of supercenters, club, and dollar stores. Supermarkets and convenience stores are growing as well. The quantity of materials that are moved daily through DCs is staggering as are the streams of data and algorithm considerations

Perhaps not surprisingly, Amazon are the world leaders in e-commerce driven distribution and have pioneered the use of pick-to-cart (aka man-to-goods), where workers run around and fill carts which take the goods to conveyors. But, Kiva systems reversed this process making it goods-to-man where, as the name suggests, workers stand in one place and the good are taken to them. Since Amazon purchased Kiva, they are building their systems into their new warehouses and estimate a reduction in staff from 2,000 to 1,000.

Kiva, isn't the only company offering such systems and it's true to say that none of them would be anywhere without the use of sophisticated software. Image the algorithms involved in resource allocation to determine which products goes in which bin; which order gets assigned to which station; which pod comes to which station; which robot should get which pod. Then compound that with the problems of integrating that solution into a SAP, IBM, Oracle, Manhattan Associates, or Red Prairie fulfillment system. Then add customized delivery optimization solutions (such as sequencing skids in a truck to delivery routes and sequencing the contents of skids to how they are off-loaded in the store) to the mix and you have some really complex software packages.

It is this blend of techniques from AI, control systems, machine learning, operations research, and other software and engineering disciplines into their mobile robotic platform that transform fulfillment to the goods-to-man methodology.

So, while they may not be the 'sexist' types of robots, industrial automation robots are changing the way in which goods are delivered to our homes, making sure we get what we order with fewer errors than ever before.

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