From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine
Gartner Says Just 5% Adoption at High End by 2018, but Longer Term AGVs will Transform DC Operations
SCDigest Editorial Staff
Will automatic guides vehicles (AGVs) finally start to make penetration into distribution center applications?
SCDigest has been writing about that potential for many year, as a new generation of smarter, more flexible AGVs came to market in the mid-2000s, notably but far from exclusively from vendors such as Kiva Systems (now part of Amazon.com) and Seegrid. (See New Life for AGVs in Distribution?)
But progress has still been slow in the broader market - the exception being Amazon's rollout of some 15,000 Kiva robots across 10 DCs in 2014.
In its global logistics "predicts" for 2015, the analysts at Gartner believe there will be some uptick in AGV-like robot adoption in DCs over the next few years, as the technology improves across a number of important dimensions.
There are actually several type of robots that are used in distribution centers. Palletizers - which look the most like traditional industrial robots - take cases away from divert lanes of one kind or another and build mixed SKUs pallets. These palletizing robots may become even more popular in combination with various automated case picking (ACP) systems.
One type Of ACP system itself can also be considered a robotic device as well - so-called "gantry systems" in which a case grabbing mechanism (usually a vacuum system) moves horizontally and vertically on the gantry to select cases from full pallets on the floor. As cases are picked, the gantry system then generally drops them onto some form of takeaway conveyor.
A new generation of humanoid robots - perhaps most notably the "Baxter" unit from Rethink Robotics - are also just starting to play a role. These types of robots have been designed to very safe and work right alongside other DCs workers and provide significant flexibility over previous robots. They can be used in areas like kitting, and someday maybe even for something like split cases picking.
Which leaves us with AGVs, which pick up and deliver products in an automated fashion, generally at a pallet level. These systems have seen limited adoption in DCs in the past because they were primarily designed for various fixed-path movements common in manufacturing, not the dynamic world of products inside a fast-paced DC.
Gartner notes that "Warehouse robots are not new, but new types of robotics are emerging to address the limitations of complex automated warehouses of the past, and are advanced evolutions of previous generations of AGVs."
While acknowledging that overall penetration of AGVs in distribution centers will remain low, Garter believes there will start to be some level of adoption in sophisticated DCs over the next few years, driven by improvements in AGV technology across a large number of characteristics.
Cost: The allure of warehouse robots will be to reduce some upfront costs inherent in building complex, highly automated facilities. Although the long-term total cost of ownership might not be that different, the upfront cost and the ability to prototype and phase implementations will favor robots for certain applications, such as goods-to-man order picking.
Flexibility: One of the downsides to large-scale automation, or automated picking systems (such as pick-to-light systems and carousels), is that these are fairly inflexible systems. The automation design needed to be very specific upfront, and change was expensive and time consuming.
Because of the flexible and mobile nature of robots, the process can be designed and the robots instructed to work to the process. The vision is that the robots will be almost as flexible as humans in structuring the work to fit the process.
Adaptability: Like flexibility, adaptability has historically been a challenge in large-scale automation, because the cost to change the automation can be high. Although some materials handling automation vendors are now making more-adaptable systems, this issue will continue to favor robots that can adapt not only to process changes, but also to changes in work within a day.
(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )