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Robots Improve Logistics in the Electronics Supply Chain

Today, we really do let our fingers do the shopping and click through to make our purchases that we want. Next day delivery has become standard for a host of consumer and business products. Keeping up with that expectation drives those in the business of logistics to press for greater efficiency in logistics. Robots can play a role in meeting that demand.

On April 29, Fetch Robotics unveiled new a robotic system made specifically for the logistics industry.  The system that consists of “Freight” and “Fetch” is based on ROS, the open source robot operating system. Freight refers to the mobile base, and Fetch to the mobile manipulator. In addition to working with each other, the robots are designed to work with people and with the warehouse software. The robots were seen in the flesh – or plastic, if you will, at ICRA, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society's flagship conference on May 26-30, 2015 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, WA.

Take a look at this video on Fetch and Freight:

Designing robots for the warehouse environment presented a number of challenges, according to an article in IEEE’s publication. Though the warehouse itself is usually an organized structure, the products within offer a number of variable, in terms of size, shape, weight, distance, not to mention the people who work there that would not want to be mowed down by a robot. And, of course, the solution had to be economically feasible.

The answer was not thinking in terms of a single solution but a dual one.  Fetch Robotics CEO Melonee Wise explained to IEEE, “The reason we're doing two robots is because one of the big challenges in logistics is traversal of the warehouse.” On its own, the “high center of gravity” required for the “mobile manipulator” would slow down it down when moving through the warehouse. The solution was adding “a smaller, faster robot to zip around the warehouse and get stuff done.”

The tandem system works well for both the two robot components and for bases paired with humans. Using multiple Freight units to gather up and move what Fetch picks off warehouse shelves allows the robot not to have to interrupt its work while waiting on delivery. New bases taking the place of the ones in which goods have been deposited also expedites the work of people.

If you're concerned that the robots can become destructive if they turn into the unrelenting machines we see the brooms turn into when they refuse to stop fetching water in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” you'll be glad to know they come equipped with a shut off button.  A person trailed by Freight can keep up the work of picking and not have to drag around a cart to gather and discharge content. Fetch Robotics calls this system “Follow Pick.” Here's the video on how that works:

As a sustainable battery life is key to keeping things zipping along, both robots are designed to autonomously charge themselves. They share a dock that is shaped to allow the robots to find it with their lasers. A quick charge takes 20 minutes, though they can also do 3-hour charges during downtime at the warehouse.  That efficient designed coupled with an affordable price (estimated at under 6 figures, though the actual price is not yet revealed) would make the robot pair a viable alternative to labor.

For some that raise a red flag, wouldn't these robots result in the loss of jobs? I asked Tom Smith, a public relations representative for Fetch Robotics that question in an email. He responded: “With respect to jobs, the intent is not to eliminate jobs, but to fill positions that are currently going unfilled, in many cases because the positions are undesirable.” He cited the 2014 report on Material Handling & Logistics U.S. Roadmap as reference to the anticipated problem of “turnover in the warehousing and distribution industry” that would be further exacerbated by the greater demand on the logistics industry.

The demand certainly is there for driving faster delivery, and optimizing warehouse logistics with some robot help may prove to be one of the keys to achieving it. What do you think?

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