When Digit spends an afternoon unloading boxes from a trailer in 100+ degree heat, co-workers never hear a complaint. Digit, a blue and white humanoid robot, was designed to handle the tough, menial, and dangerous tasks in warehouses.
The robot’s movements, informed by years of studying how birds walk, include a slight sway in its frame when at rest, to dispel the awkward stillness that bothers humans. He also doesn’t speak, because voice recognition technology isn’t advanced enough yet.
“Instead of designing the entire warehouse around robots, we can now build robots that can operate on our terms, in our spaces, in our environments,” said Jonathan Hurst, chief technology officer and founder of Agility Robotics, the firm behind of Digit.
Robotics and automation are not new to logistics; conveyors, scanners and other innovations have helped automate and speed up the speed-obsessed industry for decades. But the pace of investment and change, fueled by a pandemic-era e-commerce boom, a tight job market and a fragile supply chain, has taken off in recent years. Experts say robotics will change the way warehouses are operated and designed.
“We are entering a golden age,” said Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics. The e-commerce giant, which helped drive the industry’s shift toward automation in 2012 with the acquisition of robotics company Kiva Systems, has deployed more than half a million robotics units, including Proteus, its first fully mobile robot. autonomous.
Labor organizations have a different perspective. Technology can make jobs safer and more secure, but the industry is too focused on using it as a cost-saving measure, said Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Workers Resource Center, a nonprofit group. in California.
“You’ve always wanted to reduce labor costs, and reducing human labor is something the industry has seen as a way to save money for decades,” he said.
The adoption of robotics in warehouses will increase 50 percent or more in the next five years, according to surveys conducted by the Material Handling Institute, an industry trade group. The goal is mechanical orchestration, in which a team of robots, driven by sophisticated software and artificial intelligence, can move boxes and products in a fluid environment.
“I worry about owners who don’t,” said Erik Nieves, chief executive officer of Plus One Robotics, which has partnered with Yaskawa America to bring robotic arms to a FedEx sorting facility in Memphis. “Even today, many warehouses are just shelves, a cart, and a clipboard. They’re just not going to be able to keep up.”
Big players eager to stay ahead are investing billions. Walmart, for example, recently announced an agreement with Symbotic to bring its system of conveyors, pickers and autonomous vehicles to the retailer’s 42 major sorting facilities.
Amazon, which accounted for 38 percent of robotics investment in the industry last year, announced a $1 billion Industrial Innovation Fund in April to support robotics companies like Agility. And grocery store Kroger has opened five of a planned 20 warehouses equipped with the Ocado automated system for packing and shipping fresh food.
The seeds of the warehouse robotics boom were planted during the 2008 recession, when automakers, which rely heavily on robotics, suffered a significant and prolonged downturn. Many current innovators have a background in the automotive industry and saw logistics as ripe for innovation.
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But unlike assembly line manufacturing, warehouses require a significant degree of flexibility. Only recently have systems like vision and artificial intelligence become cheap and powerful enough to sort through the tens of thousands of different products streaming through an e-commerce warehouse. This technological leap is part of a broader adoption of robotics: The industry saw a 28 percent increase in purchases from 2020 to 2021, according to the Association for the Advancement of Automation.
Now the technology is becoming more affordable and filtering through the industry, beyond big players like Walmart and Amazon, said Rueben Scriven, a senior analyst at Interact Analysis who covers warehouse automation. He predicts a 25 percent increase in investment in robotics and automation this year alone.
Real estate firms are also investing in robotics startups. For example, Prologis, an industrial giant with a worldwide network of warehouses, has invested tens of millions of dollars in robotics companies through its Prologis Ventures fund.
“Netflix is the only company that could figure out streaming video and all of a sudden it wasn’t,” said Zac Stewart Rogers, a Colorado State University professor focused on logistics and warehousing who sees an emerging middle class of robotics users. in the industry. “Other companies will start to catch up to Amazon’s lead.”
There is increased demand for goods-to-people robots from companies like Fetch and Locus. These so-called cobots, which can resemble Segways carrying containers, move back and forth between workers throughout the facility. With the cost of raw materials like steel rising, these robots are becoming cheaper and faster to implement than automated transportation systems. Some companies have even introduced “robots as a service” business models to lease these machines to warehouse operators.
Many industry analysts add that the increased interest in robots stems from a tight job market due to high turnover and competitive salaries in other fields. Automation is one lever companies could use to address the problem.
Robots won’t replace workers any time soon, Scriven said, but rather make them more efficient and productive. Humans will be team leaders, commanding and maintaining teams of robots.
And robots can help with recruiting, said William O’Donnell, managing director of Prologis Ventures.
“It will improve the quality of experience for the workforce because instead of doing something manual by heart, people will learn how to operate the robot to keep it running,” he said. “It will create a more sophisticated career path and skill set.”
But workers haven’t necessarily found significant benefits from advances in robotics, said Kaoosji, the worker advocate. Investment in new technology will need to engage the workforce to ensure that job developments do not leave long-term workers behind.
Working at the speed of machines will overwhelm employees, he said. “It’s basically the conveyor belt problem, like Lucy Ricardo with the chocolates in ‘I Love Lucy,'” she said. “If your machines are driving your work rate, you have to maintain whatever the machine decides your work rate is.”
Warehouse builders and operators are already asking for advice on how to optimize new spaces for the next generation of robotics, said James H. Rock, chief executive of Seegrid, which creates autonomous mobile robots that glide across warehouse floors.
He believes “lights-out” warehouses, operated by robots 24 hours a day without the need for air conditioning or human-adapted lighting, will arrive in three to four years. Too many in the industry have seen the benefits of increasing efficiency and reducing costs and workplace accidents, he said.
It is not clear how much the efficiency gains from robotics will affect the overall demand for storage space. Symbotic, for example, claims it can deliver the same quantity as a traditional warehouse operation in half the space. A human and a robot tend to take up a similar amount of space on the warehouse floor, but only one needs a break room.
A bigger challenge is the industry’s aging spaces: A third of warehouses are more than 50 years old, with 70 percent built before the 21st century, according to a report by real estate services firm Newmark. Owners do not usually make these investments themselves; tenants and large retailers tend to fund robotics and automation upgrades.
Warehouses will need to be wired for greatly expanded power needs and charging stations, as well as more sophisticated 5G and wireless networks to allow the fleet of machines to communicate. Newmark found that the energy use of the US industrial sector will grow more than twice as fast as any other real estate sector in the coming decades.
“We’re largely building the same building,” said Steve Kros, a regional partner at Transwestern, a warehouse-focused developer. “A generic and simple building that can accommodate the widest possible range of tenants. But now they are using two to three times more energy than previous generations of warehouses.”