January 01, 2017      

When consumers order from Amazon.com Inc., particularly using its streamlined Prime service, they receive several automated messages of the shipment status. Often within 48 hours, the package arrives.

Part of Amazon’s secret sauce to make this happen is robots. The online retailer’s Seattle operation aggressively uses robots for order fulfillment. The company operates a growing fleet of 30,000 robots.

According to a Deutsche Bank study, Amazon’s Kiva robots have saved it considerable time and space, as well as $22 million for each fulfillment center that uses the Kiva robots so far.

Robots are assisting in loading everything from corrugated cartons to soiled hospital linens. Half of supply chain managers expect to benefit from increasing logistics automation within the decade.

Time and cost reductions are always at the top of any operations manager’s mind. These savings are even more desirable in today’s go-go supply chain, where time to market is critical for companies that compete globally for market share.

Convenience is just as important to consumers and retailers as choice, reported Lux Research.

Many businesses beyond factories and warehouses are are following Amazon’s example in seeking robots to accelerate their operations.

Aethon’s TUG helps hospitals

Aethon Inc.‘s TUG robots are used in healthcare facilities for tasks such as delivering medications from a pharmacy to nursing stations throughout the facility. The TUG robot has been installed in about 140 hospitals throughout the U.S.

TUG transports and delivers medications, laboratory specimens, meals, linen, and surgical supplies. It can also haul a variety of environmental services payloads such as trash, regulated medical waste, and soiled linen. At one facility in Kentucky, the TUG delivers over 400 medication orders daily, and travels about 5.5 miles.

“As nurses, we want to provide the best care possible to patients. Medications are central to patient care as well as their comfort,” said Benita Utz, vice president of nursing at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Fort Thomas, Ky. “The TUG has been very reliable, predictable, and easy to use. It has made our jobs as nurses more efficient and has eliminated calls to the pharmacy looking for medication deliveries.”

Mobile robot market still growing

According to market research firm Technavio, the global logistics robots market is expected to reach $2.15 billion by 2020, growing at about a 32 percent compound annual growth rate.

Though robots have many uses for logistics support, warehouses and factories have lead the charge in robotics utility as a meaningful way to accomplish labor. Technavio expects this trend to continue. It will likely be driven by consumer appetite for quick delivery of products — particularly for online ordering from vendors like Amazon.

According to their research, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and legged robots, as well as aerial drones, are becoming commonplace in warehouses for inspections, security, inventory management, and data gathering. Robots move packages, cartons, and shipments and can actually unload them from a truck.

“The growing concept of connected technology is helping these devices to deliver captured data from warehouses directly to central database management systems of enterprises,” said Bharath Kanniappan, a lead analyst at Technavio. “It has eliminated the task of manual record-keeping and inventory management.”

As a mark of its influence, Amazon is far from alone. Google Inc.’s Project Wing is testing fixed-wing drones for package delivery. They would coordinate with a fleet of ground vehicles.

The Freight robot

Freight is a mobile robot for materials transport.

Workhorse Group Inc. is also testing a rival aerial drone system that would work with its hybrid electric delivery trucks.

Fetch works with SAP

Fetch Robotics is a manufacturer of Fetch, a mobile manipulator, and Freight, a mobile cargo system. San Jose, Calif.-based Fetch has partnered with SAP, which provides the Extended Warehouse Management (SAP EWM) software application.

Fetch’s partnership with SAP hopes to provide quick implementation into company logistics systems, allowing them to automate without major disruptions into their operations. Companies want to integrate robotics into their supply chain and start reaping the benefits as quickly as possible.

“Robots have a long history in logistics, but largely in the form of industrial robots,” said Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics. “What’s new about Fetch is that the robots and humans work alongside each other, sharing the same space. We don’t require our customers to change their internal operations — our robots are designed to work in existing environments. Still, because this is such a new concept, it’s arguably our biggest challenge.”

One likely area of growth for mobile robots is in efficiently solving the “last-mile problem.” Amazon has again led the way with its dedicated delivery trucks and research into aerial drone deliveries.

Clearpath Technologies plans to hire 100 people this year, as its mobile robots join those saving time for human warehouse workers.

Dispatch mobile delivery robot

Dispatch robot delivers a parcel.

Starship Technologies is already testing its AGVs for deliveries in the U.K. And startup Dispatch has raised $2 million to develop similar robots in the U.S.

Walmart Stores Inc. and Sam’s Club are testing the use of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft for rapid grocery deliveries.

Even within its stores, Walmart is testing robotic shopping carts.

Investment needed, but so is proof of value

In the short term, the road ahead for supply chain leaders is likely to embrace robots. This should lead to lower operating cost, greater productivity, and improved supply chain efficiency.

Reaching this, however, will require investment. A fleet of robots can be expensive. They must be worth the price. In 2012, Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, the firm that previously supplied it with mobile robots for its warehouses.

This is a good sign for supply chain managers worldwide who seek solutions, but need proofs of concept to insure their investment will see a return.

“Warehouse operators and workers have both reacted very positively to our Fetch and Freight robots so far,” said Wise. “For the warehouse owners, our robots bring reliable automation to bear. For workers, the drudgery of moving packages around is significantly reduced. In one location, the workers refer to our Freight robots as their ‘puppies.'”

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