The Supply Chain Matters blog highlights some of a new wave of advanced robotics technology providers leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous driving and other technologies to address needs for higher productivity in online customer fulfillment processes.

Supply Chain Matters is in the process of highlighting our 2019 Predictions for Industry and Global Supply Chains. In our previously published Part Seven blog, we highlighted what we believe will be the expected business prioritization areas for various supply chain management focused advanced technology investment areas in the coming year.

A specific area outlined was smarter and more automated processes leveraged by artificial intelligence and machine learning. An important focus of what is likely to be emerging capability showing promise in the 2019-20 period will be the leveraging of AI/machine-learning with advanced robotics in automating physical pick and pack activities associated with higher levels of online orders incurred by retailers and direct-to-consumer product providers.

The business case focuses on overcoming shortages of customer fulfillment labor required during peak order periods, the ability to conduct customer order fulfillment in a combination physical and online retail facility, or the ability to compete more directly with Amazon which is reported to be working on such capabilities.

A grouping of innovative start-up vendors have been provided millions in start-up funding to develop automated mechanical technology that leverages advanced machine learning. Some of garnered added visibility of-late. They are addressing a challenge for replicating the movements of humans in basic picking and movement of individual items within customer fulfillment warehouses. Warehouse Robotics

Boston based start-up Berkshire Grey was featured in a Bloomberg Businessweek profile in early December 2018. Funded in 2013 the company is working on an integrated robotics-driven process for pick, pack and shipment of order-based line items. Robots termed Flexbots operate like smaller self-driving material handling vehicles accessing inventory bins. These bots move bins to robotic arms that literally pick required items and place such items in shipping boxes, which are subsequently moved by robotic arms to conveyor belts.  The company’s chief scientist is a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor and the key technical breakthrough is noted as being the application of unique suction cups.

The report stresses that the Berkshire markets its capabilities for online retailers and distributors to compete with an Amazon, which by the way, is reported to be developing similar broad capabilities.

Another start-up being profiled is RightHand Robotics, also Boston based. This start-up founded in 2014, recently raised $23 million in new funding for its mechanical picking technology. Mick Mountz, the previous founder and CEO of Kiva Systems, acquired by Amazon in 2012, recently joined the company’s board. Robotic arms leverage polymer grips coupled with suction cups to address physical object picking. This company’s capabilities are described as mimicking human hand-eye coordination, leveraging machine-learning to a vision system on a gripper. Fingers bend and twist around objects. According a published profile by The Wall Street Journal, individual robots are priced between $75,000 to $100,000 in hardware cost plus software licensing and maintenance.

Boston area based, Locus Robotics provides a different approach, namely that of autonomous robots working collaboratively with human workers, rather than replacing them. An end-to-end system of robots optimizes warehouse pick and pack by allowing workers to remain in defined zones, with multiple robots providing material movements of individual orders. Here again, the value proposition being pitched is lower capital investment along with scale and flexibility of operations managed by AI and machine learning software.

In 2017, Supply Chain Matters highlighted our visit to Vecna Robotics. Vecna’s technologies are applied to movements involving totes, bins, carts, shelves, pallets, and oversized objects. Somewhat similar to Locus Robotics, the design principle is robots working collaboratively with workers to take on time-consuming tasks of moving pallets, bins and items to designated pick and pack of shipment areas. Vecna’s approach is multi-agent coordination to include integration with a customer’s Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), and other applications management and decision-support software systems to coordinate customer fulfillment needs.

Developments in this area are international as-well. China’s major online providers Alibaba and have each invested large sums in advanced robotics and autonomous vehicles directed at supporting high volume pick and pack operations. Reports indicated that such systems were deployed to support the 2018 Singles Day shopping holiday event that set a new record for overall sales and order volumes.

Indeed, these will all be important technology areas to watch in the coming year for broader deployments among online retailers and logistics providers competing with larger online retail providers. The race for innovation in automation at lower invested cost is on.


Bob Ferrari

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