Will logistics robots soon be advanced enough to replace human workers?

Robotics technology is rapidly developing, creating opportunities for organisations and their employees. The logistics sector is an area particularly well-suited for automation with a new generation of robots.
Industries: Logistics
Trends: Robotics
  • The challenges faced by the logistics sector
  • How are organisations using robots in logistics? Facts and figures
  • Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robot hired by DHL
  • Autonomous forklift Trey saves more than 80 per cent of a worker’s time
  • Introducing: Amazon robots Proteus and Cardinal

Robots are becoming increasingly common in sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture, and the global robotics market is predicted to reach over $74 billion by 2026. One area in which robots have more recently seen use is that of logistics. Initially a term used by militaries, ‘logistics’, according to Investopedia, now refers to “the overall process of managing how resources are acquired, stored, and transported to their final destination.” Organisations in a variety of sectors, from retail to manufacturing to healthcare, must use logistics as an essential part of their operations. You have probably heard about (or even seen) drones being used to deliver packages to customers’ homes, but this is not the only way in which robots are being used in logistics processes. The management of goods within warehouses and distribution centres is known as ‘intralogistics’, and some organisations have started developing advanced robotics to optimise intralogistical operations. With the logistics sector – and the vast number of organisations involved with it – facing significant challenges, these robots are looking like a promising solution. While 80 per cent of fulfilment centres currently lack any automation whatsoever, a smaller number of companies are starting to embrace these innovations.  

The challenges faced by the logistics sector

Despite some recovery, the world is still feeling the effects of the global supply chain issues that began in 2021 as a result of the pandemic. A 2022 report by MHI and Deloitte found that 87 per cent of supply chain leaders claimed that the pandemic changed the strategic importance of supply chains, almost 80 per cent are increasing their digital transformation as a result, and 64 per cent are increasing their investments in new technologies. The report predicts that investment in supply chain-related innovations will rise sharply over the next two years. Of those increasing tech investments, two-thirds predict that they will spend over $1 million in that time period. 41 per cent of those predict spending more than $5 million, and 18 per cent predict spending more than $10 million. Other challenges that affect supply chains are labour shortages and evolving customer expectations. For example, the speed of delivery now offered by services like Amazon’s Prime has reduced consumer’s patience for longer delivery times and set a new benchmark for other companies – whatever their size, complexity, and number of resources available. To avoid falling behind in this new era, organisations need to build strategies for sustainable, efficient growth, and this involves investing in supply chain-related technologies. Thankfully, advances in robotics technology are providing new solutions for increasing efficiency, as well as safety and flexibility for human workers.

How are organisations using robots in logistics? Facts and figures

A study by the Peerless Research Group found that organisations are using (or considering using) logistics robots in their warehouses and distribution centres for a number of purposes. Some 43 per cent of those surveyed named picking as one of their top three priorities for robots to assist with, and another 43 per cent named the receiving and unloading of goods. Approximately 38 per cent named sorting, 34 per cent unit loading and heavy payload transportation, and 30 per cent putting goods away into storage. Other common priorities included order consolidation, replenishment, packing, and case transportation. The survey also found that different organisations are at different stages of implementing robotics in their logistical processes. Some 38 per cent of those surveyed were in the ‘education and knowledge gathering’ stage, 22 per cent in the ‘strategy and vision formulation’ stage, and 8 per cent in the ‘impact analysis’ stage. About 4 per cent were documenting requirements, 2 per cent piloting robots, and a further 2 per cent implementing robots in their first live production environment. Approximately 14 per cent had already carried out successful tests and were planning to implement additional robots.

Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robot hired by DHL

One of the robotics companies that has received the most attention from the press is Boston Dynamics. The company went viral in 2018 after releasing videos of its flagship product Spot, a four-legged canine-inspired robot that could run realistically and even open doors. The company hasn’t stopped making innovations in the robotics space, and its new Stretch robots, which can be installed and working within days, have caught the attention of DHL. The German logistics giant has signed a deal worth $15 million to populate its North American warehouses with Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robots.

One of the current limitations of most robotics technology is the inability to replicate the accuracy and variability of human picking and grasping. However, innovations in robotics software and hardware are quickly improving the picking and grasping capabilities of robots. Stretch robots are guided by an advanced 2D and 3D vision system called Pick, alongside a robot arm and custom gripper which enable them to handle a variety of items with care, strength, and accuracy. Sally Miller, CIO of DHL in North America, says “investing in warehouse automation plays an important role in increasing operational efficiency and improving service for our customers.” With labour shortages common, many more companies are likely to turn to Stretch or similar solutions.

“Labour shortages and supply chain snags continue to create challenges in keeping the flow of goods moving. Stretch makes logistics operations more efficient and predictable, and it improves safety by taking on one of the most physically demanding jobs in the warehouse. Many of our early adopter customers have already committed to deploying the robot at scale, so we are excited Stretch will soon be put to work more broadly, helping retailers and logistics companies handle the continued surging demand for goods.”

Robert Playter, CEO, Boston Dynamics

Autonomous forklift Trey saves more than 80 per cent of a worker’s time

Robotics and AI solutions firm Gideon has announced a new robot called Trey, which takes the form of a self-driving forklift. Trey was designed to autonomously load and unload trailers with goods, and is predicted to save over 80 per cent of warehouse workers’ time. Trey is guided by 3D vision and AI technology, and workers can also plan its workflows with intuitive software. Gideon claims that Trey robots use machine learning to understand their environments on a deeper level than other robots can. This makes them especially capable of safely working alongside human workers. Rather than attempting to replace human workers, Trey was designed to collaborate with them, empower them to increase the reliability, safety, and efficiency of logistics operations, and enable them to focus on tasks that benefit most from human input. Employees can take on the roles of supervisors, ensuring that the robots carry out their tasks most effectively. Gideon claims that Trey can lower labour costs, reduce damage to goods and equipment, and limit accidents in the workplace. The robots are easy to deploy at scale, and designed to assimilate with organisations’ existing infrastructures and processes.

Introducing: Amazon robots Proteus and Cardinal

Many criticisms of robotics and automation centre around the dangers of people becoming replaced by technology, and the job losses and economic effects that would result. E-commerce and technology giant Amazon claims that their vision of the future “was never tied to a binary decision of people or technology. Instead, it was about people and technology working safely and harmoniously together to deliver for our customers. That vision remains today.” The company now uses over 500,000 robotic drive units, and claims to have created over one million jobs. It has also announced new robotics projects that it believes will optimise productivity in its warehouses. Amazon’s first fully autonomous mobile robot is called Proteus, and it was designed to work safely and effectively not only in restricted areas, but in less structured environments populated by human employees. Proteus is powered by Amazon’s own perception, safety, and navigation technology, and can lift and transport items. Proteus is not the company’s only robot – it has also developed a robotic work cell called Cardinal, which was designed to automate the movement of heavy packages and reduce the physical strain and risk of injury to human workers carrying out this common task. 

Cardinal uses AI and advanced vision to identify specific packages from a collection, pick them up, read their labels, and place them into the company’s remotely-controlled GoCart devices. Amazon has also upgraded these carts, with the introduction of Kermit, an autonomously guided cart that transports empty totes without the need of constant human control. It does this by following magnetic tape and tags that are placed around facilities. The company has also developed an AI-based scanning technology called Amazon Robotics Identification, or AR ID, which encompasses machine learning technology that facilitates effective scanning of packages. A new robotic Containerised Storage System, which determines where products are in their ‘containment pods’ before grabbing them and passing them to employees, is also being implemented in Amazon fulfilment centres. This should improve safety for employees and increase efficiency of operations. 

Closing thoughts

The development of powerful logistics robots could be a game-changer for the logistics sector and all companies associated with it. However, despite the promising nature of this technology, it is not yet ready to be implemented without human supervision. Companies like Amazon are aware of this, and hired 150,000 seasonal logistics workers as recently as late 2021. Whether this is due to its purported vision of people and technology working together in harmony, or simply due to robotics technology not yet being capable of fully taking over operations, remains to be seen. Robotics technology will continue to develop, and it is only a matter of time before it is advanced enough to replace a significant number of human logistics workers. Research from MIT and Boston University shows that, since 1990, the adoption of robotics technology in the US has led to job losses and reduced wages. As this technology becomes more advanced, organisations will need to consider how best to implement it in a way that improves the experience of human workers and the society in which they operate.

Industries: Logistics
Trends: Robotics
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