Hard and soft robots and pilot-less ships


Robots in the warehouse ?

Robots have been used for many years within the supply chain to handle simple repetitive tasks and the heavy lifting. Moving products from one area of a warehouse to another is laborious, requires little skill and is not mentally challenging, hence the growth in the application of robotics. Companies who have automated their systems to contain labour costs and reduce headcount are improving efficiency, reducing mistakes and gaining an invaluable source of information.

Investment in robotics such as drones and automated vehicles is changing the way goods are transported once they leave the warehouse.  E-commerce customers want their products delivered faster and at their own convenience; this means that greater speed and innovation is required in picking, packing and delivery processes.


Soft-hand robots

“Hard” robots are used extensively in manufacturing and warehousing but they are limited in what they can do.  Variations in the size, shape and pliability of soft objects provide movement challenges. “Soft hands” that can grasp perishable and fragile items such as eggs, fruit and vegetables without damaging them are being improved and refined.

Ocado, the on-line retailer that delivers groceries for Waitrose and Morrisons, already uses a variety of robot hands in its operations. Ocado spokesman Alexandru Voica explains, “people have tried suction cups, robot hands with three fingers, what we are trying to do is to actually mimic the human hand”.   Developers of these technologies are working on making intelligent hands that can identify fresh produce that is too ripe or mouldy, just by touch. Dynamic grasping techniques will allow robot hands to sensitively handle other tricky products such as hazardous detergents and bottles of wine.


Robots with legs

If driverless vehicles could deliver orders to your house, then a robot could emerge from the van to deliver the parcels to your door.   For the customer, this is expected to be less expensive and faster than shopping in a store. It is expected to boost e-commerce sales and revolutionise deliveries of consumer products, including food and drink.

Daimler is looking at ways to automate using smart, economical vehicles. They believe that they would be able to have a fully automated service within the next decade. They will not only be able to quickly and safely move goods but also run cleaner and cheaper than current models. Daimler has recently entered into an agreement with Uber so that they can both benefit from the other’s “industry-leading capabilities” in research and development of autonomous driving and network operations.

A US firm, Agility Robots, has launched a bipedal robot that it hopes will revolutionise delivery logistics.   “Quite simply, robots with legs can go a lot of places that wheels cannot. This will be the key to deliveries that can be made 24 hours a day, 365 days a year” said Jonathan Hurst, Chief Technology Officer at Agility Robotics.   


Robots on ships at sea

Sea freight is responsible for a large percentage of goods that are moved around the world and automation in this sector has been relatively slow to date. Ørnulf Jan Rødseth, a research scientist and visionary, has spent the past several decades investigating pilotless ships.  He projects that “the eventual goal is to completely remove the human crew from ships. It’s an idea that opens up entirely new possibilities in terms of new business models.” Rødseth notes that by removing humans from the role of ship operators, it will be possible to design more efficient vessels that will transform merchant shipping.  Major cost savings are possible in such areas as crew accommodation,  housekeeping and safety equipment.


Fears about job losses

As automation expands there is a fear of growing unemployment and about the idea that computers and robots will be running the world.   Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, said automation posed a risk to almost half those employed in the UK and he warned that up to 15m jobs in Britain are at risk of being lost to an age of robots.

A recent report that was published by McKinsey also estimated that 49 percent of job activities globally could be automated but they provided some hope:

  • Widespread automation is inevitable, but it won’t happen as quickly as has been predicted.
  • Automation won’t eliminate the need for human workers, rather it will transform our day-to-day tasks, likely for the better.
  • Ageing populations in many developed countries will lead to a decline in the total workforce, leaving a gap that automation can fill, thereby contributing to overall economic growth.

But what about the other side of the coin?  Automation can actually help to create jobs. There will always be tasks to be done that require a higher intellectual level than robots can deliver.  Where there is a reduction in low-grade jobs there will be an increase in the number of highly skilled technical jobs and executive roles.

In 2016, Amazon grew its robot workforce by 50 percent, from 30,000 to 45,000 robots. Instead of job losses, they increased human employment by around 50 percent in the same period of time. Thanks in part to more robots in its fulfilment centres, Amazon has been able to drive down shipping costs and pass those savings on to customers.

Ocado currently employs about 4,000 people, some of these manual jobs maybe at risk. Over the next year, it expects to hire another 100 IT and engineering professionals as it opens two new warehouses and tries to persuade international retailers to use its software and technology.   Duncan Tatton-Brown, Ocado’s finance director, said the new warehouses would be automated but would “still need lots of people”. More robots mean more humans, for now.


So what are the benefits of robots?

  • Can do the heavy lifting and boring jobs
  • Create fewer mistakes and misjudgements
  • Operate in tiny spaces and have a larger reach
  • Do not need rest breaks and they pitch up on time
  • Are not subject to emotional outbursts

Decreasing human error and improving efficiency are the core purposes of using robots.   Since the typical cost of a regular industrial robot is little more than the annual salary for a worker in the UK, approximately £30,000, automation is here to stay.  A robot can run for thousands of hours without stopping, humans can’t compete with that.   However, humans will always be needed where technical expertise, judgment and fine motor skills are required. Someone has to design and make the robots….

Contact our team to discuss this article further or for advice on warehouse automation

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