Robotics in logistics – Exploring the future and beyond

Automation in logistics traditionally focuses on highly standardized processes, such as goods-to-picker models, working with standard pallet sizes and marked routes. Progress in vision and technology now extends the use of robots to non-standard environments. These include the collection of individual items and the loading of trucks with different parcels, shape and strength. Robots increasingly take on heavy logistics heavy lifting tasks that free people to concentrate on operations management. Last mile shipments from the last logistics center to the end customer are automated by the provision of self-contained terrestrial delivery robots in several countries. Legal obstacles with the delivery of drones can be overcome at sea earlier than on land.

Logistics is still an enormous, capitalistic and highly competitive market, with noticeable exceptions like Amazon being overwhelmed by a low level of automation. Whilst robots in warehouses have been used over a period of time to load and transport pallets of goods on and off trucks, their use is largely limited to standard forms and routes. Goods-to-picker models that allow robots to save up to 50 percent of their warehouse pickup work, by bringing shelves to employees who assemble orders, instead of working miles every day to pick them up. But goods-to-picker systems are highly capital-intensive at present. They also need a substantial workforce to select the items from the shelves and put together the order, an orderly task that can lead to repeated strain injury.

Combined advances in vision and in artificial intelligence technologies allow robots to work increasingly in non-standard environments to automate monotonous and physically demanding processes that had previously been carried out by people. For instance, bin-picking requires a robot to identify and select a single part from a bin of similar or different parts. The target part may be covered in whole or in part by others. After the piece has been discovered, the robot processes data to determine how it can be accessed, calculating the correct orientation of the effector (hand or other griping mechanism). Sensors in the gripper feed data to robot software, which sends code back to the robot, so that the object can be collected without damaging it by pressing too much or by slipping it too little. Due to the complexity of these functions, it is not surprising that Amazon has won the competition for three years in a row on the subject of Amazon’s annual Robotics Challenge. Many IFR members provide binpicking solutions, often with providers and system integrators of specialist viewing technology. The robots load and unload goods on trucks that are not stored on pallets using the same technology. It usually takes several hours to unload these trucks manually.

DHL’s logistics provider plans for a future whereby sorting and distribution centers will operate 24 hours a day, enabling faster services and better efficiency of capital. Robots will load trucks and carry goods sequenced for other robots ‘activities in loading areas. Parcels are then loaded by robotic weapons into the trucks to be brought to the next Network Sorting Center. Drones or mobile parcel robots can then deliver to their recipient or send their auto-driver to the sorting center for delivery. These and other tasks are supervised by employees in a robot control centre, who manage workflows, make important operational decisions, and deal with exceptions such as repackaging, rebelling and/or customs checks.

Maersk, the shipping and transport company predicts that the future will not see massive container ships dock. Drones will instead transport containers to the shore. The containers are manufactured from a super-strong, lightweight plastic, which was printed 3D on the port, to fit the cargo dimension. The drones load the vessel with a new cargo that an army of on-board robots will send to place before the unmanned ship continues. These are future visions that the IFR believes will be realized for many years. Although vision, machine training and gripper technologies are quickly progressing to sort non-standard shapes and object placing, many logistics and manufacturing tasks require a skill that only people can offer.

A host of robotic start-ups are also dealing with the supply chain stage between the last node in the logistics company’s supply chain and customers. Some tests and marketing ‘autonomous land supply robots’ –small mobile robots that can be used to carry out packages with a speed of up to 10 miles per hour within a narrow radius of a few miles from its point of departure. These robots have been developed to deliver so-called ‘last miles’ in towns that are affordable for trucks and transportation. The robots move autonomously, but when they are stuck, there is a human controller. The recipient may open the goods by telephone. In Idaho and Virginia, the use of these robots was already approved, with legislation pending in other US states.