The future of robotics in logistics and supply chain [Updated]


The availability of labor is one of the biggest challenges facing the logistics sector today. Finding enough high-quality employees to move goods from suppliers to customers isn’t easy. It is challenging due to two competing factors. First, there is a growing need for equipment and technology to handle large volumes of shipments. Second, there is a decline in the available workforce.

Forrester Research, on the other hand, predicts that online retail in Europe and the US will grow by 10 percent per year, and the growth is even faster in Asia. By 2020, China’s online retail market is projected to be equal to that of France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US combined. This tremendous growth directly affects the logistics labor requirement, since online retail typically needs more labor per item sold than traditional retailing.

Why? Because online retailers must pick and pack online purchases individually by hand, instead of moving merchandise to a retail store in bulk. These goods have to be shipped in separate parcels and delivered directly to the homes of consumers. Besides, the average weight of these shipments is increasing, as consumers can now order large items like white goods, construction supplies, and even furniture.

To tackle these challenges, the supply chain managers of tomorrow will either need to continue to raise costs or will need to compensate with automation that can support workers and increase productivity. Automation is helping companies ease and postpone these challenges, but in many cases, the solutions are not flexible enough to fulfill all requirements of the current dynamic logistic and supply chain industry.

A possible solution is robots. Could a machine help fill the future gap between the required workforce and the labor pool? Could robots help ease logistics jobs, so employees can work happily in their 60s and beyond?

The main reason for the lack of robots in logistics was technological. Past attempts to place robots into logistics failed because the technology was simply not ready. Until recently, robots have been blind, stationary, and unintelligent. Robots were hazardous and had to be placed inside cages to protect passers-by. They were tough to install in the middle of a busy distribution center or have them collaborate with workers.

Some robots were equipped with expensive cameras, but they were only able to see objects that matched a pre-programmed size and shape. They were highly inefficient because of the infinitely variable stream of packages flowing by. Besides, industrial robots were quite expensive, making them difficult to justify in cost-saving.

But things are changing today. Robots can operate with a high degree of precision and accuracy. Robotics technology is beginning to meet our expectations to have a robot that is flexible and cost-effective enough to work in a distribution environment.

The future of robotics in logistics and supply chain

1. Distribution Centers

Robots in future warehouses are likely to improve in nearly every metric compared to today’s distribution centers. These highly scalable robotic facilities will be more flexible and will relocate faster and will achieve higher productivity and quality. New operations will include different types of robots, each with a specific job to perform, such as truck unloading, co-packing, picking orders, inventory checking, or shipping goods.

Future robots will be coordinated with advanced warehouse management systems, equipped with planning software to track inventory movements and high-precision progress orders. Overall reliability will increase, as each distribution center will have fewer single points of failure. Each robot will act as an individual unit. If it breaks down, we will be able to push it to the side quickly and replaces it with another unit from the robot fleet. We will be able to fix the broken robot on-site or send it to a central repair facility, depending on the problem.

The robots of the future will be connected to the cloud, so it will automatically download the necessary knowledge from its decommissioned counterpart to take over. Warehouse workers can take over higher-level tasks that will be given to warehouse workers, such as coordinating flows, managing operations, fixing robots, and handling exceptions or complicated orders. They’ll wear exoskeletons to help them lift bulky goods with less strain, tiredness, and injury chances. If necessary, we will bring goods into a co-packaging area where collaborative robots will work safely alongside highly skilled warehouse staff to transform essential products into new items tailored to individual orders.

2. Sorting Centers

Unlike today, the future sorting centers will run continuously, 24 hours a day, to align better with the distribution centers, which will also operate around the clock. On the last shift, robotic warehouses and sorting centers will be just as effective as they are on the first shift. The new supply chain, working in waves, will facilitate multiple shipments to serve the customers each day. By fully utilizing equipment across shifts, we can lower logistics costs and achieve faster service to end customers by processing multiple daily delivery waves. Goods will be brought by self-driving trucks to the sorting center. They will arrive according to specific timeslots and using GPS and a yard management system; we will be able to control truck movements on and around the yard effectively.

When a truck arrives at the dock door, it is unloaded by robots, and parcels are sorted according to final destinations. There are several possible approaches to achieve this. For example, we could consider using a large number of mobile robots to transport the parcels to the appropriate loading areas from inbound dock doors. A robotic arm would load each mobile robot with packages; it would then group and sequence itself with other mobile robots to transport loads efficiently throughout the sorting center.

When a truck arrives with hazardous goods, these will be separately and securely sorted, handled, and transported automatically. All of these tasks will be overseen by employees working in a robot-control center; these people will address critical issues, manage workflows, and make critical operational decisions. Employees will also handle any parcels of exceptions, such as items requiring repacking, relabeling, or customs checks. When leaving the sorting center, most packages are loaded into line-haul trucks by robotic arms that take them to the next network sorting center. Some items to hard-to-reach addresses will be loaded into drones for airborne delivery.

3. Last-Mile Delivery

The general public will interface daily with robots in the future. Robots will provide high-quality customer service using cloud computing techniques, and they will be able to speak our language, respond to our emotions, and access appropriate account information to ensure successful interaction.

The first robots we are likely to encounter in the future are the ones at local parcel service centers. They will help us deliver our gifts to an old friend and email us, informing us that there is a small package waiting in a mobile parcel locker outside a nearby store. Each morning, these lockers will be swapped off by self-driving trucks for lockers holding new parcels that were preloaded at the local sorting center the evening before by robots.

What about bigger items? Human employees will still deliver them to our homes, but they will use exoskeletons to lift heavy weights safely. They may be assisted by mobile robots to carry several items along their route. If you live in an apartment, a small mobile delivery robot will automatically take the lift to your floor and call your mobile phone once outside your front door. You can open your door and enter a code into the robot, allowing you to open a compartment, and you will be able to access your parcel.

If you live in a remote area, a drone may send you a message from your driveway and require a similar procedure for access code. In both cases, as this single parcel delivery vehicle will only be sent to you, you can pre-planning the delivery time to fit your daily schedule. What if you don’t feel at home? Your robot will be able to open the front door for you to accept the parcel. It’s more than likely that all of our homes, cars, and personal robots will work together in the future, ensuring that we always receive our deliveries on time.