When will the logistics robots arrive? That is the one question industry experts continue to ponder. Almost every move being made to advance robotic technology in CEP companies is conducted in the shadows. The level of secrecy is a testament to just how fierce the competition is. Every company wants to be the first to solve the robot conundrum.
There are things that people want so badly that they prefer to not even talk about them. The same observation can be made about companies. In the CEP industry, one of those things that companies can be said to truly, actually desire is robot technology. So, by and large, they refuse to discuss it.
For that same reason, it is difficult to make an accurate assessment on the status of robot technology. How close is robot technology to an industry-wide breakthrough? We can’t really say for sure.
What do we know?
We know that the integration of robot technology in distribution centres is, more or less, at the beginning of a new era. We know that apart from a few trials, very little robot activity has been taking place in the open. We know that companies keep a lid on their developments and wait for that crucial moment when their solution is ready to be shared with the rest of the world. We know that until then, all cards are kept close to the chest.
Interestingly, much of the technology needed to implement robots has already been developed. One industry expert speculates that if it wasn't for that final, elusive piece to the puzzle, distribution centres would've adopted robots ten years ago.
So what's causing the delay?
In terms of parcel handling inside distribution centres, the difficulties lie in the fact that parcels come in so many different shapes, weights and sizes. Added to that, parcels also arrive in bulk. In other words, what you have is a moving mass of parcels, comprised of packages with varying sizes and shapes. For human hands, this is a pretty straightforward task, but for a set of robotic hands, it’s quite difficult. To put it bluntly, no robotic intelligence or robot grip has been developed that is versatile enough for the variety of parcels that distribution centres encounter daily.
As long as this issue remains unresolved, robot handlers aren’t likely to get many opportunities to prove their worth. Most CEP operators prefer to see a good case of proven technology before they replace a process inside their most finely-tuned operation. So far, robot technology hasn’t been able to offer that level of security.
There’s no question about it, however, logistics robots will arrive. The benefits of implementing a partly robotic workforce are simply too good to ignore.
CEP companies see a vast potential at both the inbound and outbound area of distribution centres. The thinking is that a higher degree of automation to the interface between the sortation system and the physical transport to and from the distribution centres would significantly improve the efficiency of the entire operation.
The prospect of robots is also intriguing on many levels. For one, use of logistics robots leads to fewer injuries to humans from heavy lifting and cuts. These are obvious drivers. On top of this, though, robots lead to general operational optimisation, due to faster singulation and, ultimately, faster throughput.
Companies will continue to experiment with robot technology—secretly and in the shadows. But are there any indications of what an actual robot breakthrough will look like?
Perhaps, instead of waiting for a broadly-based robotic solution, the industry should expect a fraction of the problem to be solved at first. In fact, a possible opening breakthrough could be to let logistics robots handle whatever amount of parcels they can, and let the rest of the parcels move on to another type of singulation.
Right now, implementing robots gradually seems like the most realistic future scenario and definitely the most realistic next step. In reality, though, there is no way of telling what will happen next.
All we know is that at some point, someone will come up with a groundbreaking solution. A solution that will make a huge difference for the entire industry.