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ProMat Preview: What’s Really Happening With Mobile Robots
March 11, 2019      

Mobile robots have been moving materials in warehouses and on factory floors for a few years now, and companies around the world are touting their abilities. As more companies enter the space, getting a sense of the state of the industry and where it’s heading can be a daunting task.

At this year’s ProMat conference, analyst Ash Sharma, research director at Interact Analysis will present “The Future of Mobile Robots in Logistics”, from 2 to 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9. The session is part of the CRO Summit at ProMat, produced by RoboBusiness and Robotics Business Review.

The company recently wrote that revenue growth from automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) accelerated in Q3 2018, with the industry expanding more than 30% compared to the same quarter a year before.

In an exclusive interview, Sharma shared some details about the session and spoke with us about his thoughts on the mobile robotics landscape.

Q: What takeaway messages do you hope attendees will get from your ProMat session?

Sharma: Hopefully, some better clarity about the current state of the mobile robot industry, and where it’s headed. There are hundreds of vendors around the world touting robots, and much talk of high growth and uptake – but this is not consistent across the board. I hope to inform the attendees about what is really happening, where the greatest demand is coming from, and which vendors are actually doing big business.

Q: We’ve seen a lot of mobile robot companies find success in the warehouse and fulfillment space, as well as companies performing last-mile deliveries with mobile robots. Are there other areas of the logistics and supply chain where mobile robots can have an impact?

Ash Sharma Interact Analysis

Ash Sharma, Interact Analysis

Sharma: Agreed with the former, but not so much on the latter so far. One other interesting area for mobile robots would be for inventory tracking. This is a laborious, yet essential, task that is prone to human error. The use of mobile robots, and possibly drones, for traversing warehouses to scan and report back on stock levels is a very compelling idea. There are a few companies attempting to do this already, but the challenge is the actual identification of the stock the robot is seeing in the warehouse.

Wider implementation of technology like RFID tags on pallets and cases could solve that. The other side of inventory tracking would be in grocery stores and supermarkets to check what items are needed on the shelves. Again, this is a laborious and manual task today, but could easily be automated at a lower cost and with greater accuracy. Some grocery chains have already started to pilot the technology, but presumably ensuring absolute safety of customers in what is a public space is of critical importance and will likely slow developments.

Areas beyond navigation

Q: Many companies have used mobile robots to grab the “low-hanging fruit” problem, in which a robot delivers products from point A (warehouse shelves) to point B (a packing area). Can you see areas within this space where mobile robots can be more beneficial?

Sharma: This is certainly true for parts of logistics, but mobile robots are also well deployed in manufacturing facilities for other functions, such as feeding production lines, carrying finished goods, and the general transportation of materials. Elsewhere within the logistics space, pallet-level conveying is possibly one of the most attractive areas for mobile robots. The elimination of manual workers for these heavy and potentially dangerous tasks has been a key driver recently, and shows no signs of abating.

Q: What are the advantages/disadvantages of mobile manipulation – where a robot arm attached to a mobile platform can also grab items or boxes and then deliver them to a packing station? Is this a logical evolution of the technology, or just a dream in the minds of editors who see both types of robots and instantly thinks of merging the two?

Sharma: Right now, I’m afraid to say it’s looking pretty unlikely that the industry will develop in that way. There’s two main reasons behind that: First, robotic piece picking is a little slow compared to humans, and still requires human interaction to help out the robot when it’s having trouble identifying what it’s supposed to pick, or helping if the robot is struggling to physically pick the item. Second, robotic arms are relatively expensive – in order to get a good return on investment it needs to be picking almost constantly. Having it on a mobile platform and moving around (and not picking) naturally reduces the number of picks it can perform, making it less cost effective.

Q: Lots of robot companies have touted their data support, whether through integration with a warehouse management system or other data that the robots collect, for optimization purpose. Is this an area that companies should focus their attention on in the next few years?

Sharma: For the logistics sector – absolutely. I’m sure many robot vendors will disagree with me, but fundamentally there’s not a lot of difference or differentiation between different companies’ hardware. They’re all very similar, built on similar platforms, using similar sensors and navigation software. What mobile robots can really do is to achieve better operational performance in warehouses and distribution centers through optimizing inventory flow, storage, and picking. Those companies that can really truly optimize this for their customers will be able to demonstrate much greater ROI and benefits of their solution, and will ultimately be the ones that succeed.

Sharma is speaking at the CRO Summit at ProMat on Tuesday, April 9, at 3 p.m. Register here to attend the summit.