Turning human-machine collaboration from sci-fi into reality

23 April 2020 | Web Article Number: ME202018688

Automation & Robotics
ICT In Industry
Instrumentation, Measurement & Control
Materials Handling & Bulk Handling
Transport, Distribution & Warehousing

By Drew Ehlers

FOR decades, there have been sci-fi stories about how – sometime in the future – humans and robots form a symbiotic relationship that helps to accelerate innovation and improve life.

Well, intelligent automation is now very real, and we have officially reached that “time in the future” when we’re ready to set up a robotics ecosystem – at least in warehouses, supermarkets and stores.

That’s why companies like Plus One Robotics, Locus Robotics and Fetch Robotics – all of which Zebra has invested in – are focused reducing the time humans spend on mundane, repetitive tasks.

Workers must be focused on more value-added actions if supply chain organizations – whether manufacturers or retailers – hope to fulfill customer demands in today’s competitive market.

Fortunately, these companies have more than demonstrated that “intelligent automation” is a smart technology solution for a growing set of demand-driven problems:

Orchestrated human-robot relationships can help you to overcome labor shortages and productivity and efficiency challenges. They can also help to keep shelves stocked in stores and expedite online-order fulfillment without compromising quality or creating new cost burdens.
For example:

  • Locus Robotics’ LocusBots connected to Zebra label printers are helping a major automotive manufacturing customer reduce workers’ unproductive walking time by over 80 percent and increase productivity 2x while decreasing drudgery and improving workplace quality in a parts warehouse. The bots travel autonomously to the locations where the items are to be picked. A nearby worker picks, scans and places the item in the tote. The robot then directs the worker to the next closest robot for their next pick, optimizing picking efficiency and minimizing unproductive walking time.
  • Fetch’s broad range of autonomous robot form-factors are being used to automate inventory cycle counting through RFID technology and transport packages, pallets, bins, totes and carts and conveyor-to-conveyor material. For example, in one cockpit assembly facility, a Transportation & Logistics provider is using simple barcode scans to tell Fetch CartConnect robots when a rack of parts needs to be moved to the staging area and exactly where to leave it. At the staging area, a warehouse associate places the parts kit onto a fixed conveyor that moves it to the aerospace company’s assembly operation. The robots also move empty part racks back to the kitting operation in the warehouse.
  • Plus One’s 3D vision and AI software enable robotic arms to perform mundane, repetitive tasks such as package singulation (picking individual items from a cluttered pile of mixed parcels at human speed) or packing (transferring the contents of an order tote to a cardboard carton for shipping).
And this is just the beginning

Imagine a robot moving up and down the aisles of your grocery store, scanning the shelves to be sure all items are in the right place, fully stocked and marked with the right price per current inventory system data. That mundane task, normally tackled by human associates over the course of hours or days, could be done in a matter of minutes via mobile automation. Better yet, if something is out of place or out of stock, this “robot” would be able to tell the store associate exactly how to correct the issue right now so that you don’t lose a customer sale.

Impressive, right?

There’s quite a bit that intelligent automation can help humans accomplish over the next five to 10 years simply by taking busy work off our plates. The good news is that it may be easier than you think to begin implement a “robot ecosystem” that empowers your team to work smarter so it doesn’t have to work harder to keep up with demand.

“Robot as a Service” (RaaS) models enable simple and frictionless deployment and scaling. There is minimal disruption to existing infrastructure during the integration period and robotics systems’ interfaces are user friendly, so there’s minimal worker training required to on-board new bots.

Drew Ehlers is Global Futurist at Zebra Technologies

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