By Steve Banker / www.forbes.com / March 7th, 2017
When Amazon purchased Kiva Systems in 2012, the interest in Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) for the warehouse soared. For a while, Kiva, now rebranded Amazon Robotics, continued to sell robots to other companies. But, after piloting the robots in some warehouses, and figuring out the optimal way to deploy them, Amazon stopped selling robots to other companies and took everything their robotic division could produce for their own distribution centers.
Today there are several alternatives to Kiva. In addition to good return on investment, these autonomous mobile robots are more flexible and scalable than traditional automation.
Last week a new competitor in the warehouse AMR market emerged. They have robots that approach picking in a couple of different ways. One robotic solution directly picks light stackable items that can be stacked or arranged on shelves into totes on another robot platform using light arms with suction cups; the robot then carries the tote back to a pack station where a human is located. The CEO of inVia Robotics, Lior Elazary, explained to me that using this methodology, the robots typically operate in the warehouse aisles. “But humans can walk in. It is perfectly safe. But we prefer keeping the humans out, so the robots can move faster.”
For items that cannot be easily arranged on shelves or for customers who stage items in a tote or bin, a goods to person automated storage and retrieval method is available. For example, smaller, flexible items like apparel can be staged in plastic totes or even cardboard corrugated bins. The inVia Robots do all the walking and bring the totes directly to a human for picking.
In some cases, humans work alongside the robots, picking goods too heavy or too small for their robots to handle. Humans pick items into a tote or totes on the robot. When the tote or totes are full, the robot carries the goods to the pack station.
The robots are operated by a Robotic Management System (RMS) that helps to optimize picking operations by the agents - which could be people, inVia Robots, or any other robot. The RMS looks to optimally place the totes, based on how high the demand is for the various items in the warehouse, to minimize travel time. The system also seeks to ensure that multiple robots work together smoothly, that many robots are not heading go to the same aisle, and ending up waiting for other robots to finish their tasks before being able to do their job.
The company offers innovative pricing. With their “robots as a service pricing mode,” they charge as low as ten cents for each pick or each time a robot travels to a pack station. “In certain parts of country, costs for a typical fulfillment operation “can be as high as 80 cents per pick. More commonly,” Mr. Elazary said, “we can cut the costs of a pick from 20 to 25 cents per pick down to ten cents.”
Tony Dobson, the CEO of Snapfulfil, a UK based Warehouse Management System (WMS) provider, explained to me that they are also working on new AMR solutions. In their case, their WMS solution will provide the software layer that controls the robots and other forms of warehouse automation. They will partner with a hardware company for the robots. Snapfulfil is the first WMS company I’ve talked to who has a control layer for managing AMRs built into their software.
In many ecommerce warehouses, pickers work in zones automated with pick to light shelving. What Snapfulfil is piloting are mobile pick-to-light and put-to-light pick faces on trollies that will travel to the zones where pickers are working. Or alternatively, a pick face can travel to a pack station. “The automatic trollies will transfer goods to different zones to maximize utilization,” Mr. Dobson said.
Mr. Dobson refers to “liquid warehouses” that contain few fixed inventory locations that are far more fluid than existing warehouses.
Autonomous mobile robots for the warehouse are here to stay; there will undoubtedly be more entrants to the market.
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