Warehouse robotics: three innovative use cases

Robotics in our warehouses is growing at a surprising pace. Highlighting the next big thing and tying it to a specific possible trial creates an immediate splash, but doesn’t always give us a great idea of how that tech could fit our individual warehouses or operations.

So, we’re going to look at some very cool robotics work that has broad implications for our warehouses and the way we interact with technology. Here are three use cases that demonstrate our relationship with technology and where you can look to figure out what’s established enough to expect in your warehouse walls.

Hitachi’s new robot doubles its working speeds

What has two hands and really likes to pick stock? This robot.

In 2015, Hitachi unveiled a two-armed robot that zooms around on wheels and pulls out objects with those arms, just like a human. The system uses a camera to recognize objects, and it turned out to be about twice as fast as many of its competitors. Hitachi notes that this upgrade to an additional arm allows the robot to pick packages in three seconds, compared to the previous seven seconds.

Yes, this is an older robot, and there are a variety of innovations that have happened since that may seem more important for your warehouse: additional sensors, AR overlays, scanners, and much more.

So, why does this robot make the list? Having two arms instead of one makes it feel a little more human; a little more like a co-worker. That’s an incredibly important aspect of the rise of robots in the warehouse. If they feel a bit more like us, we’re bound to treat them a little more like us.

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Just like people say “thank you” to Siri, a warehouse robot that looks or acts more like a person is going to engender reactions similar to a person and not a machine. That just might be the secret your repair techs need to keep things running smoother for longer.

Lowe’s gets a little more sci-fi

Toward the end of 2016, Lowe’s unveiled its robot helper, the LoweBot, that wanders aisles and helps customers find what they need. And, it speaks two languages. The assistive nature of this robot, which is designed to help get goods and support existing sales staff, is important because it can store inventory data, pick items from shelves, and generate reports to the warehouse back-end.

In May of this year, Lowe’s went another direction with a robotic exosuit that’s designed to help employees physically lift heavier products and move them around, reducing fatigue and keeping performance rates up. Pilots of the exosuits have so far reported positives and enjoyment, but long-term testing is still underway.

What is really exciting for the warehouse is the next step, where these systems are combined. Consider the exosuit coupled with a smart picking-assist system that navigates staff to the right area, helps them lift heavier items, and can dynamically adjust destinations, all with the agility and smaller-profile of a person, compared to a forklift.

The system could automate a variety of inventory level checks as the worker does pick and pack, and Lowe’s Innovation Lab has a lot of potential in this region.

Domino’s delivery robot drives itself

Pizza probably isn’t where you thought this was going to go, but there is some amazing potential that your warehouse could use. Domino’s has both a sidewalk-traveling robot and an experimental car providing delivery.

Here are a few important things to remember as we get started:

  • Pizza is perishable.
  • Pizza needs to be hot when it arrives, or customers are going to complain.
  • Almost everyone loves pizza, so you need a smart platform to ensure that the right person is receiving your delivery.

Domino’s and Ford have a self-driving car that uses a special heated compartment to store the pizza, and a unique code needs to be entered on a tablet for the person to pick up their order. The sidewalk robot has completed deliveries in Australia and parts of Europe.

When it comes to the warehouse, these tests show us that robotic systems can handle goods with specific requirements and require verification for a hand-off. The autonomous traveling side is important because the sidewalk system (think of maneuvering around the warehouse) plus the on-the-roads capabilities give us an interesting look at asset management and delivery capabilities that could revolutionize a port or a distribution center with a large yard.

Commercial applications of robotic delivery are a smart place to look when you’re trying to figure out what’s possible and what you may be able to add (or request) for your warehouse.

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Geoff Whiting

About the author…

Geoff is an experienced journalist, writer, and business development consultant with a focus on enterprise technology, e-commerce, and supply chain development. Outside of the office he can be found toying with the latest in IoT, searching for classic radio broadcast recordings, and playing the perpetual tourist in his home of Washington D.C.

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Geoff Whiting

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