Step into the warehouse of a big online retailer like Amazon, Alibaba or Ocado and you would be forgiven for thinking you had plugged yourself into the matrix. Thousands of automated robots scuttle around in a grid-like system carrying out simple commands like ‘lift’, ‘move’, ‘sort’. Of course, the race is on to take things to the next level, such as developing machines which can be ‘platform agnostic’, where the robot brain can be put into other machinery such as a forklift truck, and control that too. It all sounds great, as long as they don’t move on to humans.
Here’s a look at some of the most innovative in the market.
Amazon started out developing robots to sell to other companies but after reaching the height of optimisation, they shut shop to keep the secret for themselves. They now have over 100,000 robots worldwide. The beatle like devices scurry around the warehouse with over 1000kg on their back. They wait patiently until a customer order arrives, then obediently queue up at a packing station. It’s a system they have also rolled out to smaller businesses selling through Amazon, too. Problems still arise when, for example, something like a bottle of food smashes on the floor. The robots become fixated with the mess and keep driving over it to try and figure out what it is – eww!
Alibaba is the world’s largest retailer so it’s not surprising that if you open the doors on the back of house operation in China, it’s 3,000 square meter space is teeming with AGVs (automated guided visitors) with speeds of up to 1.5 meters per second carrying 600 kg. They are guided by wifi signals and are fitted with laser detection which prevents them from bumping into each other. Once fully charged, the robot can work eight hour shifts. Where as a human in a warehouse without the robots could sort 1,500 products during a 7.5-hour shift after taking 27,924 steps; with robotic help, the same worker can sort 3,000 products with just 2,563 steps.
Ocado groceries is leading the way in home delivery of fresh groceries and they too place part of their success on their robotic workforce. In a the sleepy town of Andover in the southeast of England is where you will find ‘The Grid’ – like a large robotic beehive with thousands of box-shaped robots buzzing around processing 65,000 orders every week. The 17-box-high stacks of products are algorithmically decided; with frequently accessed items placed on the top and rarer purchases near the bottom. Robots huddle together, then split up to help each other fulfil each order. If one breaks down, it doesn’t matter as they are all interchangeable. Can you say the same when your colleague goes off sick at work?