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Can Robot Dreams Come True?

In distribution centers across the world, a few of the most common categories of robotic technology implemented in the past have been AS/RS (automated storage/retrieval systems), AGVs (automated guided vehicles), shuttle systems, transfer cars, and palletizers, all of which have become relatively mature and well understood.

In some cases, these automated systems are a perfect fit, but they are too expensive or not flexible enough for many operations. Research currently shows that 80% of warehouses are still manually operated with no supporting automation. The world needs a different type of robot, one that is a better fit for modern distribution requirements. The logistics robot of our dreams should be low cost, multipurpose, retrainable, re-deployable, and safe to work around. The good news is that in many ways, our dreams may soon be coming true.

Next-generation Robotics

New ideas, low-cost sensors, and faster computers are being combined with innovative robotics in research centers around the world. Universities and startup companies are making breakthroughs that give prototype robots the capability to take on new logistic applications. One company is working on a robot that will roam the warehouse shelves picking pieces as a person would. Another is developing robot forklifts that will automatically load or unload trucks. Still, others are experimenting with exoskeletons to help workers remain productive and safe in their later years.

Most of these systems are not yet ready for full commercialization, but the field is evolving rapidly, and the potential for real progress is higher than ever before.

Invest, Lest you Lose

It goes without saying that companies willing to invest now to develop prospective robotic technologies will have a future competitive advantage over others that do not. The rapidly changing logistics industry isn’t going to become any less complex than it already is, and high-quality labor will continue to be challenging to find. Companies like Amazon understand this. In 2012, Amazon bought the startup robotics company Kiva Systems for USD 775 million, and now they claim to have installed 200,000 of their robots across several distribution centers.

In the future, as logistic robots become more capable and prevalent, we may see that even smaller companies will need to invest in advanced technology to meet the competitive demands of the marketplace.

The Next Revolution

Much has been said in the recent past about the fourth industrial revolution now upon us. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, says that we stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter how we live, work, and relate to one another. From exoskeletons for humans to home delivery and mobile piece-picking robots, emerging technologies are evolving quickly and hold great future promise for the logistics industry.

And as these new robotic technologies are developed and gradually implemented throughout the supply chain, traditional warehouse workers will be given more responsibility and higher-level tasks, such as managing operations, coordinating flows, fixing robots, and handling exceptions or difficult orders.

Talent, Always in Demand

I’m quite optimistic that humans and robots will strike a balance working alongside each other, each supporting the other. Robots are essentially tools that all smart logistics teams will want to integrate into their processes when the time is right, and the technology is ready. At the end of the day, a supply chain will only be as good as the people who work within it. The demand for talented and motivated people will not diminish. On the contrary, it will go up as we strive to develop and improve our future supply chains.


–Tom Bonkenburg, St. Onge Company

Note: A version of this post was originally published on the DHL blog.

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