Many warehouses today are spending significant amounts of time sorting products and scanning barcodes before they are shipped off to customers. But as customer expectations for fast delivery continue to grow, warehouses are playing a game of seconds when it comes to having the most efficient distribution centre in the industry.
When time is of the essence, warehouses rely on the latest technologies that can pick, pack and ship an item in just a fraction of the time of what a human can do. Not only are these new fulfilment technologies said to transform distribution efficiency, but they are set to catapult artificial intelligence into a phase of evolution by creating a new breed of super hybrid intelligent machines. In this post, we look at the latest warehouse robotics that are being created in response to the robot arms race instigated by the world's largest online retailer.
The day Amazon started a robot war
You may remember hearing about the robot arms race that’s been spurred on by Amazon’s fleet of stubby yet agile orange robots gliding across their warehouse floors like more highly evolved Roomba vacuums. In 2012, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos threw down $775 million to purchase Kiva robots, completely halting the sale of these slender, shelf-shifting mechanical cubes everywhere else.
We know that robotics are the backbone of automation, but if you’re unfamiliar with how revolutionary the Kiva robots were for the time, take a look at the video below and you’ll see why Amazon was willing to fork out $700 million purely on distribution centre (DC) technology.
When the Kiva robots and inventory management systems started being introduced in 2011 and 2012, they were seen as breakthrough technologies that would forever change picking and packing in DCs. Many warehouses today still rely on the more traditional method of sending a picker/packer out into the warehouse, picking the goods and returning them for packing and shipping. The Kiva system enabled businesses to send items right to the packer near the truck door, saving vast amounts of time when fulfilling orders.
In the years since only a handful of start-ups have sprung up to compete with the technology that gave Amazon the most efficient distribution centres in history. To this day there is still a gap in fulfilment system technologies, but slowly a new army of AI powered robot arms are creeping up on Kiva and are said to even take over. Take a look below at just a few of the new innovations that are changing the fulfilment game.
A new era was born: the latest and greatest warehouse robots
If you’ve never thought of warehouses and distribution centres as leading the latest trends in technology, then you should be pleasantly surprised to know that The Verge recently announced that warehouse robots could fuel the next big leap in AI. Well at least that’s what the founders of an intelligent-machine based start-up Kindred state, as they explore new ways machines and software can be engineered to work together in the future.
Their new Orb robot is based on AI that learns from the picking and packing actions of humans. It doesn’t seem to be fully developed at this stage, but they are slowly proving to be a data goldmine for robots that operate in the real world. Kindred is setting new standards for AI as they continually improve their algorithms through human interaction.
Kindred was founded on the philosophical premise that the only way to progress software based intelligence is by having them collaborate with humans in the physical world through a mechanical body. So to Kindred, super AI = humans + (self-learning software + a mechanical body). No longer does the future of AI lie slowly in the ones and zeroes of voices like Siri and Alexa, but thanks to start-ups like Kindred, the next generation of AI will be embedded in a physical robot that directly interacts with humans.
The founders Geordie Rose and Suzanne Gildert stated in an interview in The Verge: “If you want to build intelligence that conceptually thinks in the same way a human does… it needs to have a similar sensory motor as humans do”. Although Kindred is still working on the AI behind there innovations, there are a few new start-ups that are changing the way we look at warehouse robotics. We’ve listed just a few below:
Amazon may have its fleet of tiny elegant shelf shifters, but this Pittsburg start-up developed a robot arm with actual grip power. Iam Robotics is on the cutting edge of automated picking technology, and although it sounds like a small task, their innovative product I AM SWIFT has an articulated arm that can pick items from any side of the shelf from as high as 7 feet. The arm works in conjunction with Iam Robotics’ suite of technologies that include a barcode scanner and software platform that enables the robotic arm to recognise objects based on information fed through the whole system.
The I am Robotics Swift Arm
Designed as a direct result of the loss of the Kiva robot to the market, Locus Robotics are a perfect representation of a new breed of automation technologies that aren’t capital intensive or difficult to integrate into legacy systems. Similar to Iam Robotics, Locus Robotics have also developed a suite of innovations from apps to servers, but their Pièce De Résistance is their larger than life direct competitor with Kiva called the LocusBot. Combined with their zone-based systems, the LocusBot allows for hands-free and super-fast picking with near 100% accuracy.
You may not have heard of this Pittsburg based solutions provider, but Grenzebach know all about automation and the factory of the future. Their mobile robotics are designed for a range of different types of shelves, and one of their most popular mobile robots called Carry moves along the floor reading barcode stickers for localisation and brings the shelf to the picker/packer.
The Grenzebach Carry range
These are just a few of this new generation of AI fuelled robotics, and with these innovations and many more to come, it’s looking like Amazon won the battle but not the war. What do you think of the future technologies taking over warehouses across the globe? Are we looking to a future of human like robots that can pick and pack in half the time? And are we starting to fill the technology void left by Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva robots? Tell us what you think by commenting below.