In a time of increasing customer demand, robotics technology is helping e-commerce sellers to manage forward inventory and next-day delivery, says Jim Serstad, vice president of product development with Tompkins Robotics.
SCB: What do you mean when you talk about distributed logistics?
Serstad: More and more we’re finding that retailers need to put inventory in forward locations so that they can meet ever-closer demands for delivery. Next-day, even same-day delivery requires a distributed inventory and more locations closer to the consumer.
SCB: Smaller D.C.s, smaller footprints, maybe even micro-fulfillment centers?
Serstad: Yes. Maybe even in the back rooms of existing stores.
SCB: Where do robots come into the picture?
Serstad: A number of robotics providers are offering products for micro fulfillment. Urban distribution centers need to be very dense or in the back rooms of stores — they need to be small. So we’re starting to see more storage solutions that can densely store inventory, using robots to extract it. Another area is sortation, which typically requires a lot of space. Again, robotics vendors are looking for ways to do flexible, smaller, and denser sortation.
SCB: What do these robotics look like?
Serstad: For storage, there might be an automated retrieval shuttle-style robot that runs on a track. You might have robots that run on top of a storage cube, or others that go into it. For sortation in particular, we have robots that are small vehicles moving on a platform and have a tray that diverts items to their sort destination.
SCB: What exactly are the robots doing? Putaway, picking, directing humans to the pick face?
Serstad: There are some processes that are easier for robots to do. That’s why I mentioned both storage and retrieval, as well as sortation. One of the more challenging processes is picking. It’s difficult for robots to pick from a traditional pick face. But some companies are taking on that challenge with picking robots that have an articulating arm. One of the bigger challenges is how to pick items sight unseen, to recognize an item and know how to grab it from a bin.
SCB: Where do humans come into the picture in these centers?
Serstad: Some processes such as picking are done better or can be supplemented by humans. They’re still doing the majority of the picking, especially if it’s from a pick face. You might have a human working with a robot that follows it. The human does the picking and places it onto the collaborative robot.
SCB: How does the picture differ between large and small D.C.s?
Serstad: In a smaller facility, it’s probably more done by humans. There haven’t been a lot of implementations of a following robot or directing robot in a micro-fulfillment environment.
SCB: Robots are cutting down on human travel, but if you have a small center, it’s not so much of a concern, right?
Serstad: Right. In a typical solutions that might be proposed, a storage/retrieval system presents a bin containing a certain SKU. A human would then pull from that bin, either directly to orders or to a sortation robot.
SCB: Are there safety issues arising from the use of collaborative robots?
Serstad: There’s a lot of emphasis being placed on collaborative robots these days so that humans can interact with them. The jury is still out in terms of the value of that. Is there anything wrong with caging off a robot with an articulating arm? Also, when robots that are running on the floor, it’s inevitable that they would be interacting with humans. That has to happen in highly automated warehouses. The speed of the robots and their ability to interact with humans is important, and improving.
SCB: What will be the future impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning?
Serstad: There are certain areas where AI will be extremely important. One is the challenge of picking — of being able to recognize items and identify a pick strategy. Another example is optimizing travel paths within warehouses.
SCB: Looking to the future, do you see a change in the ratio of machine to human labor in the warehouse?
Serstad: I would expect we’re going to see the use of machines increase significantly. They’ll become more efficient and take more jobs that humans have currently been doing. The road ahead has a lot of changes and improvements that will be made in the coming years.