April 17, 2016      

Order fulfillment is currently a labor-intensive task, and consumers expecting fast e-commerce are putting increasing strain on retail supply chains. Warehouse robots are widely viewed as the solution to the problem, but only a few are ready.

At the MODEX trade show in Atlanta this month, IAM Robotics demonstrated Swift, which it described as “the world’s first mobile, autonomous piece-picking robot.”

“We were the only company that demonstrated a mobile picking robot that was able to drive, find products, and pick them up by itself using perception and manipulation,” said Tom Galluzzo, CEO of IAM Robotics. “To my knowledge, we’re the only ones able to do this right now.”

Swift is now commercially available and is offered along with Pittsburgh-based IAM’s Flash product scanner and its SwiftLink fleet management software.

Why supply chains need automation

“There’s a stronger market need now than 15 to 20 years ago. The material handling market wasn’t looking at lean warehouse automation until Kiva Systems came along,” Galluzzo said, referring to the company now known as Amazon Robotics.

Tom Galluzzo, CEO of IAM Robotics

Two trends are driving warehouse robotics, says IAM Robotics CEO Tom Galluzzo.

“There are two major trends: e-commerce growth and urbanization,” he explained. “As e-commerce companies grow, they need to distribute smaller quantities of products more frequently.”

“Urbanization makes the distribution model harder for a lot of supply chain logistics companies because they can’t ship traditional quantities into dense urban areas,” Galluzzo told Robotics Business Review. “E-commerce has led to ‘dark stores,’ in which retail stores become endpoints for last-mile delivery and order fulfillment.”

“Brick-and-mortar retailers looking to complete in the e-commerce market use the same channel as regular retail but pick individual products for shipping to customers,” he said. “A lot of retailers have tried ‘omnichannel‘ distribution without e-commerce fulfillment to retrieve products, but that’s not desirable. They actually end up with unexpected things like [being] out of stock.”

“Having a dark store enables certain retailers to control what a regular distribution center would do,” Galluzzo said. “About 80 to 90 percent of operations don’t yet have robotics picking.”

However, there aren’t enough people to meet the demand for order fulfillment. “I’ve seen projections of a million-worker shortage in supply chain in the next five years,” he said.

“There’s an almost 100 percent chance that somewhere in the supply chain, someone is touching your orders,” Galluzzo added. “The supply chain is not nearly as automated as the rest of the world might believe.”

“A lot of automation systems designed around peak time, but that can be expensive,” he said. “With modern robotics, we don’t have to design automated storage around peak demand that’s eight times normal.”

“Since Swift is designed to work with existing infrastructure, it can work in any warehouse, dark store, or even retail stores,” he said. “It wouldn’t interfere with customers trying to browse.”

Swift picking starts with scanning, vision

“Swift took a significant development effort of about three years,” Galluzzo said. “It took about two years from scratch to the first autonomous robot prototype.”

The mobile robot uses 2D and 3D cameras for both product sensing and navigation, and it can see in 360 degrees.

“In our workflow, the customer teaches the robot how to recognize each product using the Flash scanner, which is like a miniature photo studio,” Galluzzo said. “The user can take each product and collect 2D pictures, 3D surface models, the dimensions, and weight. We then teach each robot how to pick.”

IAM Robotics' workflow for its warehouse robots

IAM’s autonomous Swift robot integrates into warehousing workflows.

“The customer must have its own Flash unit to scan products — it takes about 5 seconds per item,” he said. “SwiftLink connects to the customer’s warehouse management system for items and quantity, and it sends a visual pick list to the robot.”

“We layer on top of that data a set of algorithms to find and identify products,” Galluzzo said. “With the RapidVision suite, the robot uses predefined mapping of items in the warehouse and perception to navigate to locations. It then checks if the product is here and how to grasp it and puts it in a tote.”

“We also use vision for collision avoidance, and it’s designed to slow and stop for safety around people,” he said. Swift can move at 2 mph in existing warehouse aisles.

Warehouse robots promises speed and ease of use

Swift has a pick speed of up to 300 items per hour, and it uses vacuum suction available in a variety of sizes.

“We were actually quite surprised how much we could grasp with the vacuum suction-cup system; it was a lot more than we expected,” Galluzzo said. “It worked well for certain markets … pharmaceuticals, grocery e-commerce, prepackaged home goods like cleaning supplies, and cosmetics.”

Different end effectors have different capacities, but the FANUC Corp. arm has a weight limit of 15 lb., Galluzzo said. The tote has a capacity of 50 lb. — a lot of pill containers or groceries.

Swift is mostly assembled in the U.S. “We have domestic fabricators and do some light assembly at IAM, combined with testing and software development,” Galluzzo said.

“SwiftLink manages all operations,” he said. “It’s a single point of contact for connecting a set of Swift robots to the supply chain management system. Our customers provide their own warehouse management systems, and we help them with the initial installation.”

Both SwiftLink and the autonomy and perception software on Swift are proprietary. The data gathered from the mobile robots could eventually be analyzed as part of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

“It’s evolving. We have things in mind, but nothing is set in stone yet,” Galluzzo said.

Opportunity cost for logistics

Galluzzo declined to provide a specific base price for Swift, but he did explain IAM Robotics’ cost structure. “There are three components,” he said. “The first is installation/integration, a one-time setup fee.”

“The second is price per robot,” Galluzzo added. “It’s a monthly lease price right now.”

“The third part is a yearly support and maintenance contract per robot. It covers hardware maintenance and repairs, software upgrades, etc.,” he said.

The Rochester Drug Cooperative Inc. is IAM’s first customer, deploying Flash, Swift, and SwiftLink this year.

“We ran the robot continuously over all four days at MODEX,” said Galluzzo. “It ran great; people were impressed. Over 150 companies expressed interest.”

“Before then, we had about a dozen [prospects] in the pipeline for various applications — everything from manufacturing and automotive to research laboratory operations,” he added. “A lot of big-name retailers are interested.”

Although IAM is selling primarily in the U.S. for starters, the company has received a lot of interest from Europe, Galluzzo said. “These kinds of robots will help with reshoring factories by increasing manufacturing efficiency,” he said.

Galluzzo said that IAM Robotics has raised enough seed funds to launch its products. “I expect to see a lot more investment soon.”

“We want to expand to new applications and add features, but we’re really nailing down initial adopters for 2017,” Galluzzo noted. “The IAM Preferred program allows early adopters to get the benefits of discounted pricing, sit on our customer advisory board, and help us to grow and expand the product.”

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