October 06, 2016      

Teams from around the world participated in this year’s Amazon Picking Challenge, in which the retail giant looks for robotics talent to help it automate its vast warehouses. The winner was a Dutch robotics team from Delft, which many people may not recognize as a robotics hotbed. However, the Netherlands is a European model for reshoring innovation and industry from Asia.

Delft is a small city with canals in the southern Netherlands, about 8 miles north of Rotterdam. About 100,000 people that live there. Do not let the size of the city or its canals fool you, though.

The Delft University of Technology has become a hotbed of robotics developments. The TU Delft Robotics Institute at the university is home to more 150 researchers who are working on various types of hardware and software robots.

In addition, TU Delft is the heart of RoboValley, which has set its sights on becoming the Silicon Valley of European robotics. From attracting investments and offering courses to executives to hosting next April’s RoboBusiness Europe conference, RoboValley is quickly becoming a go-to place for robotics.

In July, another development put Delft on the global map.

Competitors help Amazon realize its vision

For two years in a row, Amazon.com Inc. has been organizing a global competition for pick-and-place robots to automate tasks in its giant warehouses.

The competition has attracted startups, research organizations, academic institutions, and companies from all over the world.

While the teams competed for bragging rights and the global attention that the winner gets, Amazon has used the contest as a platform to build stronger ties between industry and academia.

Dutch robotics previewed at CES 2016.

Team Delft demonstrated Dutch robotics prowess at CES 2016.

There is another motivation for Amazon, perhaps as powerful, if not more so.

The mobile robots that Amazon uses in its warehouses — predominantly from Amazon Robotics, formerly known as Kiva Systems — can move the shelving units from one place to another.

Humans still do the task of finding, picking, sorting, and placing items from the shelves and putting them into bins and vice versa.

It’s no big deal for human hand-eye coordination, but it is tedious and repetitive. But teaching a robot to do just the basics is complex and time-consuming. Achieving the right balance between speed and accuracy is not easy.

Solving this piece of the warehouse automation puzzle is critical for Amazon. The company is not only reimagining delivery but is also relying on all kinds of robots to turn the vision into a reality.

In June, 28 teams from across the world, including one from MIT, took part in this year’s competition in Leipzig, Germany.

Who won the top award, and why?

Team Delft’s approach

Team Delft is a collaborative partnership between Delft Robotics, a spinoff of the university, and the TU Delft Robotics Institute.

In the competition, there were two main activities.

First, all kinds and sizes of items were stacked in bins or shelves. The robot had to find the right stuff, fast. It had to pick the items, make sure that it could grab the items without dropping them, and put them in the right totes.

Second, the process was somewhat reversed. The totes were cluttered, and the robot had to find the right items and put them back in the right bin.

We saw a preview of this in the Robotics Marketplace at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The teams were given points for accuracy and speed. Points were taken when their robots made errors such as picking the wrong item, dropping an item, or putting it in the wrong place.

Team Delft’s robotic innovation — a mechanical arm equipped with a gripper, 3D cameras, and some artificial intelligence — scored the most points and walked away with the top award.

What did Team Delft do different that put it ahead of the pack?

According to Kanter van Deurzen, leader of Team Delft, there were three factors critical for their success.

First, there was a clear communication within the team, he told Robotics Business Review. Everybody was constantly talking with one another and keep each other informed. Nobody was in the dark.

It may seem simple in hindsight. In reality, a lot of projects go wrong because of miscommunication.

Second, the team maintained total transparency, van Deurzen said. All team members not only understood their individual goals, but they also knew who was responsible for what and what to expect from others. This made sure that there was no confusion over responsibilities and outcomes.

Third, the team brought a holistic or multidisciplinary approach with its solution. In other words, instead of focusing on just one or two things like grabbing an object or remembering it, the team adopted a “total solution” mindset.

“The competition was very good and intense,” van Deurzen said. “When it came to single tasks — like recognizing an item or grabbing it — many teams had very, very sophisticated innovations. We won in the end because our system worked better as an integrated solution.”

More on Dutch Robotics and Supply Chain Automation:

Dutch robotics could have a big impact

What’s the big deal about the robotic arm developed by Team Delft? After all, is it not just another development in the world of robotics that is quickly moving? How does Delft Robotics’ work shift things?

RoboValley is a hub for Dutch robotics

First, even within the robotics industry, not everybody knows where Delft is, let alone what is taking place at the university and RoboValley. Delft Robotics has proven that robotics innovation can not only come from somewhere other than the U.S., Japan, or China, but that it can also be world-class.

This should be highly inspirational to other robotics startups that are invisible and operating in the shadows of big cities or big companies.

Second, for decades, manufacturing has been done in Asia, and enterprises such as United Parcel Service, FedEx, and DHL have been providing one-stop, full-service logistics facilities. Many of these logistics hubs are in low-cost countries of Asia or Eastern and Southern Europe.

For companies like Philips or Unilever, such an arrangement may have made sense for optimizing costs. But now, businesses in northern and western Europe (and elsewhere) can look at Team Delft’s robotic picker and consider bringing their warehouse facilities back home. An existing Dutch firm might improve efficiencies of its own and compete head-on with the global logistics companies.

The 2016 Amazon competition may have sown the seeds for a profound change for the world.