Logistics forms the backbone of the modern world and keeps products on the move. As the production of goods and services is becoming more flexible and automated, the demand for easy-to-operate logistics robots is growing worldwide, both in developed and developing economies. In fact, the growth rate in global demand for logistics robots is higher than the overall growth rate of manufacturing activities.
Market factors such as increased labor and operational costs have encouraged the development of different varieties of logistics robots. In a typical factory floor scenario, traditional industrial robots are the workhorses for pick and place, palletizing, and packaging, whereas automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and mobile robotic platforms are used in tracking and transporting materials from one corner to another corner on the factory floor. These robots are highly process-efficient and reliable. Prominent industries currently utilizing these robots include pharmaceuticals, chemicals, manufacturing, automotive, food and beverage, hospitals, and theme parks. Most of the well-known industrial robot manufacturers like ABB, Fanuc, Kuka, Kawasaki, Yaskawa, Stabuli, Epson, and Adept Technologies have already established themselves in this market to address the growing demand. In addition to the typical factory floor scenarios, there are several interesting areas where logistics robots are joining the workforce.
- Assisted Order Picking – The success of an e-commerce company in a highly competitive and fast-paced industry is dependent on backend operations and scalability of those operations within their own warehouses or those of their partners. In 2012, Amazon made a big move by buying Kiva Systems, coming at a time when its headcount was growing faster than revenue and Amazon was not able to optimize its economies of scale. Today, the Kiva robot is the busiest employee at Amazon. With robots in operation at Amazon’s fulfillment centers, the company obtained the benefits of space and time. Robots occupy less space in comparison to human staff, and thereby the company’s fulfillment centers can house more items closely together. And time is saved by eliminating the need for human personnel to walk to where the items are located. In the United States, Amazon now has a workforce of more than 15,000 Kiva robots.
- Unmanned Logistics Aerial Vehicles – In another promising area for logistics industry applications, delivery drones, also known as parcel-copters, are in the headlines for many reasons. These small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are mostly based on multicopter DHL claims its parcel-copter is one of the safest and most reliable flight systems in its class that meets the requirements needed to fulfill aerial logistics missions. Amazon Prime Air from Amazon is being developed to safely deliver packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less. The Google X program known as Project Wing aims to develop drones that can deliver not only products sold via e-commerce, but also larger delivery items. It will take some time for these robots to achieve success, mainly because of technological challenges, regulatory pressures, and public acceptance. The best utilization of these robots is in urgent express shipments in crowded megacities and in rural locations with poor infrastructure or challenging geography.
- Self-Driving Logistics Vehicles – For years, the logistics industry has been deploying autonomous vehicles and mobile robots for indoor operations. In the near term, it seems that the logistics industry will adopt outdoor self-driving vehicles much faster than most other industries. Assisted highway trucking and convoying systems are being tested and developed. In assisted highway trucking systems, the driver is not required to actively steer the vehicle, the vehicle can identify pedestrians and other obstacles and navigate autonomously, and the driver can retake manual control anytime. In convoying systems, the driver of the first truck retains control of all steering functions and sets the pace for vehicles that follow. Drivers in the following vehicles are not required to provide any steering, acceleration, or braking, as follower vehicles can manage without drivers. Volvo and several other truck manufacturers, including Daimler and MAN, are developing similar solutions for commercial use.
Many businesses, mostly from the manufacturing, e-commerce, and package delivery sectors, are looking for ways to reduce costs and improve performance. In light of these market drivers, logistics robots show strong potential. It is small wonder that, according to some industry estimates, the logistics robot market will grow beyond $30 billion by 2020.