Warehouse Picking Bots Could Soon Replace Expensive Humans

As the consumer demand for e-commerce grows, retailers are counting on robotics to lend a hand. Robotics companies and researchers are working on developing picking robots to select individual items and put them in boxes. It may sound like a small task, but on a scale of online retailer Amazon, the development looks set revolutionize one of the most labor-intensive aspects of e-commerce. Up to now, warehouse “picking” — the act of grabbing an item from a warehouse shelf — was largely done by humans. But that is changing, reports the The Wall Street Journal.

Per the WSJ:

Picking is the biggest labor cost in most e-commerce distribution centers, and among the least automated. Swapping in robots could cut the labor cost of fulfilling online orders by a fifth, said Marc Wulfraat, president of consulting firm MWPVL International Inc.
“When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of units, those numbers can be very significant,” he said. “It’s going to be a significant edge for whoever gets there first.”

So while robots have been able to grab items for a while, it’s proven impractical in warehouses that stock an ever-changing rotation of products. However, more sophisticated robotic arms are being developed that can recognize and respond with tactile differentiation different items, all while amassing data on their experiences to inform future picking practices. Essentially, these picking robots can learn from their collective memory.

For retailers, this could be a game-changer. For some it means the possibility of fully automated warehouses, a “lights-out” scenario; a facility wouldn’t need overhead lamps because the robots wouldn’t. For others, it’s the ability to refine the jobs of human employees and solve a labor shortage that retailers have been dealing with as e-commerce has continued to expand. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, e-commerce revenues reached $390 billion in 2017 — twice as much as 2011.

Hudson’s Bay — a Canadian retail giant that also owns Saks Fifth Avenue — is currently testing a robot made by RightHand Robotics in its Ontario distribution center. The robot has an arm that can pick up different items and put them in various boxes. The company’s latest iteration of their gripper is pretty incredible; it has impressive tactile functions, various robotic finger options and even fingernails for grasping slim objects.

RightHand isn’t the only developer working on a picking bot. IAM Robotics, KUKA and Honeywell International Inc.’s Intelligrated are all working on robots that could potentially move 50 percent faster than a human doing the same job.

Academic researchers are taking it a step further. A University of California, Berkeley project is testing a robot that can select and pick up thousands of objects based on data fed to it about each object’s shape, appearance, and information regarding the physics of actually grasping it.

Amazon is eager to advance this technology through what is arguably one of the biggest new robotics competitions. The Amazon Robotics Challenge will be held from July 27 to 30 in Nagoya, Japan, and invites the academic robotic community to share research and pit their picking robots against each other in performance competitions.

The WSJ reports that over the last five years, U.S. warehouses have added 262,000 jobs to a sector that now employs 950,000 people. Whether these robots will have an effect on the jobs of laborers is yet to be seen.

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