ATLANTA — Although MODEX 2020 was affected by widening COVID-19 concerns, the exhibitors, speakers, and attendees who did come here last week shared their observations about robotics in supply chain, logistics, and manufacturing operations. Maturing software, a better understanding of use cases, and accelerating demand should all lead to continued automation growth, they said.
MODEX 2020 attendance was down by a significant percentage, according to several sources. The biennial event, which alternates years with ProMat, had expected to host as many as 30,000 people. Of the more than 900 booths, at least 70 were empty or had skeleton crews, including those of Dematic, IAM Robotics, and Universal Robots. More than half of its conference sessions were canceled. Elbow bumps replaced handshakes, announcements were sent by e-mail, and hand sanitizer was the most popular giveaway.
“The first day on the show floor felt like the third day,” one exhibitor told Robotics Business Review. Since the event began on Monday, numerous public gatherings for the arts, industry, or sports and entertainment have been canceled worldwide. RBR has received several pitches trying to position non-healthcare robotics companies as being on the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus.
MHI, which organized MODEX 2020, recorded videos at booths for exhibitors to display after the show. Several people we spoke with were returning home to two-week self-quarantines and mandatory telecommuting.
However, traffic improved somewhat on Tuesday, March 10, and several robotics demonstrations attracted groups of people. In addition, those who remained provided more serious leads, said multiple salespeople. Spiking e-commerce demand, tightening labor shortages, and the need to manage supply chains at a granular level could lead to more rapid robotics adoption.
“Some market estimates say that e-commerce could grow from $3 trillion, 4% of retail worldwide today, to 40%, or $17 trillion, by 2030,” said Vince Martinelli, head of product and marketing at RightHand Robotics Inc. The company recently expanded its European operations.
Here are five robotics trends and takeaways discussed at MODEX 2020:
1. A second wave of warehouse applications approaches
For the past few years, many autonomous mobile robot (AMR) companies have focused on specific tasks — usually piece-picking for e-commerce order fulfillment — as a way to sell into warehouses, distribution centers, or third-party logistics (3PL) sites. While there are still plenty of companies left to target, MODEX 2020 provided a glimpse of a “second wave” of robotics solutions coming to address either new processes or more customized offerings for early customers.
For instance, several AMR providers are offering additional processes for existing robot deployments. Locus Robotics was among the companies adding replenishment, returns, and put-away tasks to its robots, as it partnered with RightHand Robotics Inc. Goods-to-person automation is becoming more sophisticated, as vendors add cycle counting and inventory features to their software, enabling robots to conduct multiple tasks.
In addition, companies showed at MODEX 2020 how their robots can provide a return on investment during non-peak times in addition to peak times. This also reflects the maturation of supply chain robotics from initial trials to first deployments.
“We’re not a science project,” said Robert Sullivan, president and CEO of Chelmsford, Mass.-based AutoGuide Mobile Robots. “We did a demonstration for 150 people, and the system was operational in three and a half hours.”
“Often, when we talk to customers, they never want to invest in a system that they’re going to use one month out of the year,” said Lior Elazary, founder and CEO of inVia Robotics. “At peak, they basically don’t do as much cycle counting, and the robots are just concentrating on fulfilling the orders and getting them out the door as soon as possible. Then after peak in January, everything drops significantly by factor of 10, and they’re able to use the robots for cycle counting [and other tasks].”
Customers are now identifying applications to automate and then thinking about how to do so, said a representative of end-effector maker OnRobot. “Users are working backwards from the gripper to programming the robot,” she said.
2. MODEX 2020 shows accessories and specialization
Another part of the second wave seen around MODEX 2020 includes companies developing robots and accessories to handle more specialized tasks.
For example, Mobile Industrial Robots A/S (MiR) this week showed a new AMR that is designed to fit in narrower corridors and can move at 2m/sec. (4.47 mph). The MiR250 works with a new cart, adapter, and top module from ROEQ that were also displayed in MiR’s booth.
6 River Systems Inc. demonstrated its Autoloader, which is intended to free workers from moving boxes or totes onto and off of shelves. It also announced enhancements to its Chuck mobile robots.
Avidbots showed off a new “side sweeper” attachment for its Neo commercial cleaning robot that can clean and pick up items in hard-to-reach areas. And Seegrid offered a new tow tractor that has auto-charging capabilities.
SnapFulfil’s latest SnapCart prototype was built with off-the-shelf components to increase goods-to-person capacity and reduce costs with “cellular picking,” said Don White, North America CEO at the company.
Many of these designs are based on requests from existing customers. Waypoint Robotics‘ new Kingpin accessory enables its Vector robot to connect to shelf carts for pick up and drop off. “There has been a lot of interest and feedback from customers,” said CEO Jason Walker.
There was less discussion than last year about mobile manipulation. Several attendees and exhibitors said that more use cases need to be justified. However, Agility Robotics’ Digit legged robot won an MHI Innovation Award for “best new product.”
3. Bigger is better
Over the past year, several AMR vendors have released larger mobile platforms for moving pallets or automotive parts as they expand past piece-picking processes into manufacturing. This trend was already in evidence at the latest ProMat.
Examples include heavy-duty robots displayed by MiR, OTTO Motors, Fetch Robotics, and Waypoint Robotics. OTTO, which has active pilots at Hirotec and is expanding in Japan, showed off its OTTO 750 and 1500 mobile platforms (see photo above), as well as its Fleet Manager software.
Fetch Robotics built its CartConnect500 system in response to customer requests to be able to move pallets, said Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch.
Unlike some other AMR companies, which have tried to move from warehouses into factories, Waypoint Robotics’ MAV3K was designed with manufacturers in mind.
“A few years ago, we challenged Waypoint to build a mobile robot for heavy loads,” said Dan Hanrahan, CEO of Numina Group, which provides realtime coordination software for automotive OEMs. It has partnered with Waypoint for batch order optimization.
Small can also be beautiful, as companies released robots designed to work in existing facilities. For instance, the MiR250 is faster and smaller than its predecessors.
For throughput, companies such as OPEX Corp. claimed that automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are more space-efficient and faster than shelves and automated carts. The company was recognized for “best innovation of an existing product.”
4. Focus turns to software
Several AMR exhibitors at MODEX 2020 touted their software, from simulation for planning and deployment to systems meant to complement warehouse management systems (WMSes).
GreyOrange discussed its GreyMatter software and command center, which work with the Ranger mobile robots and sortation.
“Every movement is a transaction,” said Samay Kohli, co-founder and CEO of the company. “Machine learning optimizes affinities of things picked together, maximizing SKUs per pull.”
“The idea of robots as a commodity is a fallacy,” he added. “We’re building room for AI to grow in our robots in a software-first design, like Tesla’s cars. We run our software on premise rather than in a public or private cloud, and we don’t want to go up the software stack.”
GreyOrange won an MHI Innovation Award for “warehousing and fulfillment excellence” at MODEX 2020.
In its booth, RightHand Robotics gave periodic talks and demonstrations of its dashboard analytics, which co-founder Yaro Tenzer said can enable customers or integrators to resolve exceptions in the field.
InVia Robotics’ Elizary demonstrated its PickMate tool and a “pick to color” system and noted that it’s important to utilize staffers for replenishment during non-peak times. “Our systems guide people, who can be robot wranglers and use problem-solving skills. This is how collaboration should happen with robots.”
Fetch Robotics Inc. took a different approach with its cloud-based FetchCore fleet management software. That and its Workflow Builder product are designed to make it easier for distribution centers to integrate and customize their operations, said Wise.
In addition to other software releases, Fetch and Honeywell jointly announced voice-directed workflows around MODEX 2020.
In response to a question about where distribution centers are asking for more automation, Matt Wicks, chief robotics solution architect at Honeywell, said, “Across the board, wherever the labor pool isn’t, such as in sortation and unloading.”
5. Partnerships proliferate around MODEX 2020
Many of the announcements at MODEX 2020 reflected an acknowledgement that not every robotics company can do it all, even with robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) models and integrator help. Providers of mobile robots, pick-and-place systems, and the software stack to connect them, as well as warehouse and inventory systems, are working together. So much so that one needs a scorecard to keep track.
In addition to the partnerships mentioned above, Fetch’s mobile robots now work with Zebra Technologies’ FulfillmentEdge software and wearable systems. They can help warehouses retain workers by shortening onboarding times for workers from four weeks to a single shift, said Stefan Nusser, vice president of products at Fetch. The company is also working with reseller Körber Supply Chain.
Swisslog has combined a KUKA robotic arm with a robotic gripper and vision system in the ItemPiQ system. “It’s integrated with AutoStore and is a dream team for improving goods-to-person picking,” said Markus Schmidt, president of Swisslog Americas. KUKA acquired Swisslog in 2014.
“Integration is key to the whole system. We try to integrate all our technology from end to end,” he told RBR. “There’s no reason why every second customer site couldn’t eventually have a mix of manual and robotic pick stations.”
Honeywell is building a new robotics center in Pittsburgh and is working closely with Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center. The company has also invested in Attabotics and Soft Robotics and partnered with Fetch.
Vecna Robotics extended its partnership with lift maker UniCarriers Americas Corp., which itself this month partnered with Brain Corp. on autonomous robots. In turn, software maker Brain Corp. is working with Dane Technologies on manufacturing autonomous delivery robots.
As the novel coronavirus increasingly disrupts retail and global supply chains, as well as events such as MODEX 2020, automation must continue to evolve and scale up to meet the demand.
Note: Editor Keith Shaw contributed to this article.