August 11, 2015      

Warehouse automation doesn’t get the attention of consumer devices or fears of military AI, but mobile robotics are in great demand because of e-commerce expectations. A company’s efficiency — and profit — often hinge on its ability to keep up with ever-shifting requests for specific components or products.

Mobile robots have long existed in warehouse and manufacturing environments, but developments in automation and manipulation are increasing their usefulness and flexibility. As more U.S. companies look at reshoring operations, they need to stay competitive with Chinese businesses, which are also investing in increased automation.

Automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, follow lines painted on shop floors or bounce lasers off reflectors to know their location. They can save human workers steps and precious time, as demonstrated in Amazon’s warehouses, but that’s only the beginning.

The latest and greatest are worth the investment

Improvements in artificial intelligence, sensors, and networking have enabled robots to react dynamically to rapid changes in inventory, navigate more complex physical environments without endangering human co-workers, and efficiently work in groups. Machine vision software also improves guidance and sorting.

Adept's Lynx in the warehouse

In addition, newer AGVs (which Adept Technology Inc. calls “AIVs” for autonomous indoor vehicles or autonomous intelligent vehicles) require less space and energy to function. Reducing the number of staffers in logistics also reduces the chances of theft. The Buffalo Trace Distillery has invested in automation to address this business risk.

When combined with robotic manipulators or working alongside humans, mobile robots can become even more useful than standalone mobile platforms or large arms working in caged cells on the factory floor. Recent challenges have demonstrated the growing sophistication of sorting and picking functions, while also highlighting the need for further refinements.

Other challenges for AIVs include handling multiple types of products without damaging them, as well as integrating robots into the organization’s other systems and using the resulting big data. If integrated properly, AIVs can help execute a strategy for leaner manufacturing and supply chains.

Apps and market grow steadily

Additional applications for AGVs and AIVs beyond manufacturing and logistics include precision agriculture, pharmacies, fast-food restaurants, and even large retail stores.

In addition to Adept Technology, other companies in the mobile and material handling robotics space include Clearpath, Fetch, and Kuka.

MarketsandMarkets predicts that the mobile robotics market will reach $10 billion by 2020, while the logistics robot market could grow to $31.3 billion by 2020, according to Modern Materials Handling. In any case, a potential doubling in the size of the market will mean intensifying competition, more investment opportunities, eventual consolidation among smaller players, and continuing refinements to mobile warehouse robotics.