Materials handling automation: Get ready for robotic materials handling

image
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
June 25, 2010 - MMH Editorial

You may have read that the robotics industry show is co-locating with ProMat next year in Chicago. My first reaction was: Huh! Sure, robots are very cool, and there are plenty of robots doing arc welding or loading machines on the automotive assembly line. But how often do you see robots in materials handling, especially in warehouses and distribution centers. 

Turns out, there’s more than you think. In fact, according to Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industries Association (http://www.robotics.org), in Ann Arbor, materials handling is now the fastest-growing application segment for the robotics industry. “If you look at industrial robots, we’ve been dependent on automotive for years,” says Burnstein.

“Historically, 60- to – 70% pf the robots sold have gone into automotive, and early on, welding was the leading application. Today, materials handling is the leading application.”

And, while Burnstein sees a lot of opportunity in the auto industry for his members despite the recession – growth driven by retooling for new vehicles – the growth of robots for materials handling is cutting across industries, including food, pharmaceutical and public warehousing. “There is clearly a movement to get robots into the warehouse,” he says, adding that developments like two arm robots that can work side-by-side with humans and industrial robots on mobile platforms are going to open up new opportunities for robots in the warehouse.

Certainly, our industry has seen the introduction of a number of interesting mobile robotic materials handling solutions from companies like Kiva Systems, RMT and Seegrid, along with solutions to build mixed SKU pallets from Axium and Kuka Systems/Westfalia. In fact, all five were on display at NA 2010 in Cleveland.

This past week, I’ve been talking to a number of robotic solution providers and consultants for a story on robotics for our August issue. One of the questions I’ve been asking is why now? What’s changed that is allowing robots to make the transition from the assembly line to the warehouse. I’ve heard a lot of explanations, but the one that resonates with me is that we’ve seen the cost and reliability of the technology down to where it’s competitive with the cost of labor in the warehouse and distribution center. “Robotic technology has become versatile, especially with mobile robotics that can move a pallet around a warehouse with a picker,” says Bryan Jensen, a partner with St. Onge (http://www.stonge.com). “But the most important may be that the cost of robotics is now in line with the payback, which is the cost or a portion of the cost of an operator in a distribution center.”

One of the economic hurdles to adoption of robotics in the past, Jensen adds, is that while an assembly line worker, especially in an automotive plant, was pretty highly paid, distribution labor was, frankly, cheap and available. That is changing at the same time as robotic technology is getting better and cheaper. The lines on that payback graph are finally crossing.

In other words, robotic materials handling technology is maturing and moving beyond the wow factor to a tried and true tool for materials handlers kit bag. This is going to be a very interesting area to watch over the coming years. 

 



About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


Subscribe to Logistics Management magazine

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Get timely insider information that you can use to better manage your
entire logistics operation.
Start your FREE subscription today!

Recent Entries

With an eye on capitalizing on future trade and commerce growth in South Asia, express delivery and logistics services provider DHL today rolled out its plans to build an $85 million EUR ($93 million USD) DHL Express South Asia Hub, which will be a 24-hour express hub facility within the Changi Airfreight Center at the Singapore Changi Airport.

While the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has long stated its goal of having Positive Train Control (PTC) technology installed on 40 percent of its network by December 31, 2015, railroad industry stakeholders have repeatedly stated that reaching that deadline would be a stretch. It now appears that the railroad sector has some members of Congress sharing the same line of thought with legislation rolled out this week that pledges to extend the PTC deadline to 2020.

West Coast port authorities may be overstating the obvious when they decry “business as usual.” But it’s refreshing to see them finally coming around.

Transportation stakeholders reliant on North Carolina’s major seaports are welcoming news this week, which outlines plans to enhance the intermodal and cold chain network in the region.

The index ISM uses to measure non-manufacturing growth—known as the NMI—was 56.9 in February, which was 0.2 percent ahead of January and also 0.1 percent ahead of the 12-month average of 56.8. Economic activity in the non-manufacturing sector has grown for the last 61 months, according to ISM.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484 or email [email protected].

Comments

Post a comment
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.