The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming!

Somewhere in the back of my mind I guess I knew it would happen someday, but to be honest I hadn’t really thought that much about the potential of mobile robots being applied to materials handing applications in logistics operations.

I’m not talking about stationary robots that might wrap, stack or invert pallets, those have been around long enough that they’re almost taken for granted. What is now emerging and REALLY fast are mobile materials handling robots and these aren’t Automated Guided Vehicles or AGVS as they’re known that run on wire or laser guidance systems.

These warehouse versions of R2D2, for all you Star Wars fans out there, are already here today and in operation at a number of sites in North America pulling pallets from one end of the warehouse to the other on a continuous loop basis with no driver.

For all of you operators out there, I don’t have to tell you the significance, but for everyone else, it means that these repetitive and very boring tasks (just ask me I did it in my late teens) can be completed without a human operator.

In addition to the direct labour savings, these mobile materials handling robots don’t need breaks, biological or otherwise, only the changing of a battery once or twice a day.

What’s even more impressive is that they can be programed simply by walking them through the path you want them to follow and even have stops added in where product needs to be added to the load or things like parts or mail removed, and even stop at specific aisleway intersections and honk there horn to warn drivers coming on the other path.

Interestingly, these units are a result of research and development in the mid-1970’s utilizing cameras and vision technology to create a grid or map of the environment and then follow it over and over again. The vision technology also allows the units to see obstacles moving or stationary, human or inanimate and then stop the unit to prevent any accidents.

Even more exciting for the long term is that these units could actually identify the obstacle and then navigate safely around it, but current codes applicable to these robots (The Current AGV Safety Code) do not allow this. So today these mobile robots need to wait for the human they call to come and restart them.

The initial function is to tow a cart with one or two pallets or other relevant materiel aboard and then drop it off at the destination after following the preprogrammed path. And this represents a great start as transporting of product represents more than half of the materials handling requirements today. But I’m being told that other tasks such as pick and place as well as rack putaway and trailer loading and unloading are already under development and will also require the development of a specific safety code.

The productivity impact on our economy could be dramatic and in the face of low cost overseas labour give us an opportunity to fight back and make our own operations much more efficient than today.

Plans are now being prepared for a widespread launch of these units in early 2008, but if you’d like to get some advance information and/or exposure to these mobile materials handling robots, feel free to ASK and I’ll give you the details.

So the article title is The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming! but in reality, these mobile materials handling marvels are already here.

Jeff Ashcroft

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