Collaborative Robots: Boosting Speed and Efficiency in Logistics

Cobots – Humans and Machines in Perfect Harmony

Industrial robotics is nothing new. In fact, the technology has been deployed successfully for some six decades, particularly in manufacturing. But as robots grow increasingly sophisticated and intelligent, many fear that they may ultimately eliminate the need for human workers, sparking large-scale unemployment.

This is where collaborative robots (or cobots) come into play. As their name suggests, these devices are designed not to replace humans, but rather to work alongside them. For companies in the logistics sector, this offers a host of opportunities. Find out how co‑bots could benefit your business – and what you should consider if you’re thinking of introducing this technology in your business.

A Successful Track Record…

Industrial robots are not just about heavy-duty manufacturing challenges like welding and riveting. Back in the 1990s, robotics technology was already being used in the food industry for downstream tasks such as palletization. But because of their bulk and rapid movements, these earlier generations of robots posed serious hazards for humans. As a result, working in close proximity to them was simply unfeasible, and they had to be enclosed in protective cages.

But all that has changed with the advent of collaborative robots. Greatly enhanced sensor and vision technology enables cobots to detect when there is a risk to life and limb – and respond instantly. This, plus their smaller physical dimensions, means that these robots no longer need to be strictly segregated from their human workmates.

…And a Promising Future

This is one reason why collaborative robots are more affordable than their industrial counterparts. The average cobot now costs around USD 24k – significantly less than a conventional fully automated warehouse solution, including caging. And thanks to their small size and advanced technology, cobots are quick to set up, easy to control (for example, via tablet), and promise a rapid ROI.

In light of the potential benefits of pairing cobots with human workers, it’s small wonder that the market for the technology, worth USD 649 in 2018, is projected to see CAGR of 44.5% between now and 2025.

The Challenge: Greater Speed + Greater Efficiency

In our age of e-commerce, customers increasingly expect rapid, accurate order fulfilment. Consequently, today’s warehouse processes have to be ultra-fast and ultra-efficient. The problem is that human workers spend up to 80% of their time walking round the facility to fetch items – leaving just 20% of their day for revenue-generating tasks.

But it’s not just these long treks that can eat into efficiencies. Unpleasant tasks and the hazards of repetitive actions, handling heavy loads, and jumping on and off pallets can all have negative impacts – not least on workers’ health and wellbeing.

Freeing Up Staff for Value-Adding Tasks – Safeguarding Employee Health

Cobots counter both issues. When deployed to fetch goods to fulfil orders, they take on the lion’s share of travel, allowing human workers to operate in a smaller footprint and handle less monotonous activities that call for greater skill and creativity.

Disagreeable tasks can quickly sap worker morale, impacting productivity. By handing these chores over to cobots, companies can achieve efficiency increases of 30%. And letting cobots do the heavy lifting also protects employees’ health and safety in the workplace.

Given the immense pressure on today’s e-commerce companies to deliver quickly and reliably, it’s no surprise that Amazon has embraced cobots. By introducing the technology at its warehouses in the United States and Europe, the retail giant has taken the legwork out of picking, allowing human workers to handle more intricate tasks – and significantly accelerating order fulfilment.

The expected benefits of cobots in the logistics space are also reflected by a number of high-profile acquisitions and alliances. For example, multi-channel commerce platform Shopify recently reached an agreement to acquire 6 River Systems, Inc., a provider of collaborative warehouse fulfillment solutions. By adding collaborative mobile robots to its Shopify Fulfillment Network, Shopify expects to increase speed and reliability in the warehouse and support human workers in tasks such as inventory replenishment, picking, sorting, and packing.

Putting Cobots to Work for Your Business

Given the evident appeal of cobots, it seems very likely that robots and people will increasingly work side by side in the future, setting new standards for speed and efficiency. So where can you best deploy the technology in your logistics operations?

At present, cobots are ideally suited for comparatively simple tasks in the supply chain, such as picking and palletizing. It is here that they promise the greatest cost savings and can free up your staff to spend more time on value-adding activities.

Are Your Warehouses Cobot-Ready?

One thing to bear in mind, is that today’s cobots do not perform at their best in congested, unstable, and inconsistent environments. As a result, you may find that you have to fundamentally rethink the design of your warehouse to introduce the technology. So before diving deep into specific applications, it makes sense to consider the suitability of your existing facilities. That being said, the benefits of cobots – from price, to ease of setup, right through to rapid ROI – make it well worth taking a closer look at this technology.

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