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How Autonomous Mobile Robots Are Changing the Logistics Landscape

A Fetch Robotics mobile robot roams the warehouse floor. Credit: Fetch Robotics

June 06, 2018      

As the e-commerce and on-demand economy continue to grow worldwide, a new generation of autonomous mobile robots are helping companies tackle major labor challenges posed by this rapid expansion and demand.

A recent report by Tractica Research estimates that the worldwide sales of warehousing and logistics robots will reach $22.4 billion by the end of 2021, with robot unit shipments reaching 620,000 units per year by 2021.

There are more than 50 existing and emerging firms vying for customers within this space. The following mini-case studies look at how three companies are aiming autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, to solve problems for logistics and e-commerce companies.

Case Study 1: Fetch Robotics works worldwide

Fetch RollerTop autonomous mobile robots image

Fetch’s new RollerTop platform can deliver goods in a factory or warehouse setting. Credit: Fetch Robotics

One of the early pioneers in this field is San Jose, Calif.-based Fetch Robotics, which has developed collaborative AMRs for locating, tracking, and moving inventory in warehouse and logistics facilities. The Fetch system includes a mobile robot base, modular attachments, and a unique cloud-based software system.

This three-pronged approach enables warehouses to achieve automation “in hours and days, as opposed to weeks and months,” said Joe Lau, director of product marketing at Fetch.

“They free up the human workforce from these mundane tasks and allow them to focus on more sophisticated, value-added activities,” he said.

The company’s Freight series of autonomous mobile robots supports multiple applications, including material transport systems and automated data collections. The AMRs can find and move anything from parts to pallets in warehouses, factories, or distribution centers.

Lau said the FetchCore cloud software lets customers “adapt at a moment’s notice without changes to the infrastructure and generate powerful insights from robot data.”

Fetch AMRs are currently deployed at several locations around the world, including a DHL distribution center in the Netherlands, San Francisco-based RK Logistics, and the U.S.-based operation of German automotive parts manufacturer Mahle Behr.

At the DHL distribution center, the autonomous mobile robots help manage an entire logistics chain of spare parts, from order intake to customer delivery.

“The mobile robot system simplifies point-to-point material handling,” Lau said. “Workflows at this warehouse can be set up and modified very quickly to accommodate dynamic environments, without the need for complex programming.”

At RK Logistics, the company has deployed robots to handle 30% to 50% of items at its facility, and Mahle Behr is using RFID-enabled robots for inventory tracking, Lau said.

The company is also looking to create turnkey solutions to carry out any lower-level, repetitive tasks that can be addressed with autonomous movement.

“We already have a range of material transport and data collection robots, so it’s easy to see us expanding in those areas,” said Lau. “We also have a mobile manipulator with an arm and grasper for our research customers, so you can see further development in this area as well.”

Case Study 2: InVia Robotics optimizes without disruption

California-based inVia Robotics develops a range of AMRs that operate together for several warehouse tasks, including collaborative goods-to-person tote retrieval for pickers, inventory replenishment, cycle counting, and item verification.

Lior Elazary, co-founder and CEO at inVia, said its integrated robotic management system (RMS) provides users with complete control over the robots. This enables them to decide which tasks are most important.

“Utilizing sophisticated AI and vision algorithms, our robots are able to adapt to the existing warehouse environment,” Elazary said. “This means that our robot can work with all kinds of different totes, as well as different shelves.”

The process is controlled via its robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) software, he added, letting companies optimize warehouses “without disrupting the current operational ecosystem.”

The company has deployed autonomous mobile robots in warehouses for customers including Hollar, an online dollar store and growing e-commerce outfit, and Rakuten Super Logistics, one of the largest third-party logistics providers (3PLs) in the U.S.

Although both integrations only kicked off this year, Elazary said they are seeing “impressive results” and expect to increase warehouse productivity by 300% to 500%.

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He said the future is “full end-to-end automation, with zero touches and minimal mistakes, from the product being delivered to the time it leaves the warehouse floor.”

“From replenishments, to picking to cycle counting, people will still be involved, but at a higher level and handling important tasks like quality control [and not] the physical moves around the warehouse, which can be done by robot,” said Elazary.

Case Study 3: Vecna Robotics and the autonomy stack

Vecna Robotics autonomous mobile robots

The Vecna Robotocs RL3600 pallet truck works with humans in a warehouse. Credit: Vecna Robotics

Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna Robotics develops several autonomous mobile robots based on a novel “autonomy stack.” Vecna CEO Dan Patt said this means the robots can “take input from many different kinds of sensors and fuse this information together to understand where they are in the world, and how they can execute their tasking.”

“We are also unique in having a full spectrum of robots that handle an array of tasks, and the technology that orchestrates their collaboration in real work settings, making us a full spectrum automation provider” in logistics, distribution, fulfilment, and other material-handling workflows, Patt said.

A recent highly publicized example is at FedEx, where Vecna AMRs are used to convey and sort oversized packages at ground distribution hubs. Patt said this application is particularly demanding, as it requires operations in a “mixed human-driven, pedestrian, and robot traffic set.”

“The Vecna Robotics autonomy stack and robots are quite flexible,” said Patt. “We also have applications in the manufacturing sector, including ones that have very high precision relative location requirements.”

The market is just starting to heat up, Patt said. “I would expect to see much more adoption across a broader set of use cases, accompanied by advances in technical maturity that deliver high reliability,” he said.