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Enter the Robots

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Collaborative mobile robots might help solve many of today’s warehouses challenges. Some of them can even multitask.

The exponential growth of e-commerce has left warehouses struggling to keep up with demand. Enter the robots.

With more than 100 million customers of Amazon Prime in the United States alone, warehouses are handling more products than ever before. And consumer expectations are only increasing with the promise of two-, one- and same-day shipping, adding even further strain on warehouses. But mobile robots, which move independently around the factory floor, offer a solution to distribution centers in need of new efficiencies that can help them adapt to shifting demands.

Not Slowing Down Anytime Soon

The rise of e-commerce has been swift and ubiquitous. From smart speakers to fresh produce, nearly every item imaginable is available online with one simple click. And it’s only growing from here — experts predict the number of online shoppers in the U.S. will reach 230.5 million in 2021. 

Not surprisingly, this massive growth has forced many organizations to restructure their business models in the face of new operational challenges. Warehouses in particular have had to seek out new innovations to accommodate increased demand. In the past, distribution centers were able to rely on predictable sales patterns and plan for busy holiday seasons well in advance. But the ease of online ordering has dramatically shifted buying habits, resulting in unpredictable sales patterns that traditional warehouse models are ill-equipped to handle.

That same ease means consumers are doing less of their shopping in brick-and-mortar stores and more of it online. Traditionally, businesses have been able to ship products to shops in bulk. But with the rise of direct-to-consumer shipping, distribution centers have had to adapt their shipping and picking processes and technologies. Similarly, meeting individual shipping needs has impacted how warehouses are able to store and handle their inventory. 

Most warehouses have been forced to adapt rapidly to the ever-growing e-commerce market or lose out to their competition. But as processes are upended and activity on the floor is heightened, safety is becoming another one of the major challenges today’s distribution centers must solve. 

Warehouses aren’t going anywhere — as long as consumers are purchasing products, warehouses will be needed to store and ship them. Yet these distribution centers do need to find safe, cost-effective and efficient solutions to adapt to increasing demand — and quickly. 

Easing the E-Commerce Burden on Warehouses

Robots are revolutionizing the warehousing industry, bringing mobility and flexibility to what was once static and clunky. Mobile robots navigate independently, either on their own or in swarms, maximizing efficiency on the factory floor. It’s no surprise these machines are quickly popping up across the automotive, welding, electronics, medical and manufacturing industries.

Until recently, automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) were the only means of providing mobile platforms in the warehouse space. But these platforms were tethered to one location, which created obvious limitations. 

A new generation of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), however, uses sensor technology to navigate factory floors independently. Traditionally, platforms were confined to a fixed loop within the work environment. But omnidirectional wheels on mobile robots are dramatically increasing the number of processes that can be automated, opening up valuable new possibilities for the freed-up floor space. 

Mobile robots are especially beneficial for managing internal logistics because they provide the flexibility that traditional transport systems such as fixed conveyor systems lack. They’re able to independently move around a factory floor without any cages. Fencing is unnecessary because sensors notify the robots to slow down or shut off when they encounter a worker on the floor. That means workers and robots can safely work side-by-side, increasing the number of tasks that can be performed on the floor simultaneously.

That’s not to say stationary robots don’t have a place on the factory floor. Fixed transport conveyor systems still have value for tasks that don’t require a lot of flexibility, like assembly line production. But mobile robots are definitely preferable for the tasks that require mobility, like transporting products around the work space. It’s also worth noting that these robots can even work together — for example, a stationary robot can sort objects that a mobile robot then takes to the next station.

Most importantly, mobile robots can be seamlessly integrated into the warehouse process. They can acclimate to any environment, which is particularly valuable given the pace at which e-commerce is growing and changing. And not only are many mobile robot solutions turnkey, they can also be customized for the unique needs of individual warehouses.

Working with Humans, Not Against Them 

Despite fears of robots coming for our jobs, these machines are actually creating much-needed efficiencies in the workplace that allow workers to do their jobs better. In fact, many of the challenges today’s warehouses face with the increase in e-commerce are being solved by collaborative mobile robots that work alongside traditional workers. Not to mention that mobile robots help ease the burden of monotonous duties, freeing up employees for more high-value tasks like managing teams, solving operational challenges and testing new innovations. 

Nimble, customizable technologies like mobile robots will play a crucial role in the smart factory market, which is expected to reach $276 billion by 2026. Their versatility means these machines can be used across a range of industries, transforming everything from food and beverage to medical. With their independent navigation and advanced precision, mobile robots will be an essential tool for keeping up with e-commerce demand and creating efficiencies on the factory floor of the future.

Simon Whitton is senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Americas at KUKA Robotics.

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