The unstoppable growth of ecommerce along with the continued drive in Europe to implement Industrie 4.0 manufacturing solutions has sustained the development and deployment of autonomous mobile material handling solutions. At the Promat 2017 show in Chicago, IL the number of suppliers demonstrating solutions that navigate autonomously are increasing. Some of these companies smell blood in the water as Amazon has announced they will no longer support Kiva’s installed base after 2019. When Amazon acquired Kiva in 2012 they viewed Kiva’s mobile material handling solutions as a leapfrog technology and decided to terminate any new deployments. Kiva effectively created a market and educated the customers. It has taken a fair amount of time for competitors to duplicate the technology, but the market appears to be primed for new entrants to step in.
Swisslog has had a history in autonomous mobile robotics segment where they focused on the hospital intralogistics market about 8 years ago. Swisslog’s initial foray into the hospital logistics market relied upon a partnership with Adept Robotics where they established a relationship to brand label Adept’s autonomous mobile robotics solution, however the partnership has been discontinued. Swisslog has now taken a completely different tack with the development of their own autonomous robotic technology for both the hospital intralogistics market and the warehousing/distribution center applications. At this year’s Promat, Swisslog introduced the equivalent of a Kiva solution with a significantly increased payload capacity. Similarly, the solution employs a navigation system that relies on a 2-D bar code grid on the floor. According, to Swisslog, the solution was originally designed for the automotive manufacturing industry where payload requirements were much greater than the small racks that Kiva systems were handling. However, the void that is being created by the Amazon announcement to their customers has accelerated their efforts in the warehousing distribution center market.
The Swisslog solution continues to rely upon augmenting the warehouse infrastructure by placing barcodes throughout the floor. The use of bar codes on the floor is a relatively low cost implementation that has been employed by the Kiva solution for well over 10 years and has proven to be extremely reliable in relatively clean environments. Installing a grid pattern of bar codes is relatively low cost and does not require any significant changes to the infrastructure. Alternative navigation solutions on the market include reflective lasers and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). Reflective lasers have also been utilized in many applications for well over 10 years, but like the bar code technology this requires placing reflective markers throughout the building.
In ARC’s view, SLAM technology will be become the most dominant technological solution in the market surpassing bar code and laser reflective guidance solutions. SLAM does not require infrastructure modification which is a tremendous cost advantage for initial deployment. This is extremely important when a manufacturer or warehouse needs look at the initial cost of the investment as well as the continued maintenance of a solutions. Bar codes get dirty leading to occasional stoppages in work while laser reflectors are not as prone to dirt, but limit the flexibility as the light path cannot be obstructed.
SLAM navigation technology has been implemented into several mobile robotic solutions that were being demonstrated at the Promat show this year. Companies such as DS Automation (www.ds-automation.com), Otto (www.ottomotors.com), fetch robotics (www.fetchrobotics.com), and Aethon (www.aethon.com) are all employing SLAM. These systems are deployed in a similar manner where an initial map of the facility is created using a lidar system. A central map is referenced by each of the mobile robots for navigating the facility, but these systems can adapt to obstructions in their surroundings. Multiple sensors mounted on the mobile robotics platform with a primary sensor being a 2D laser scanner that generates a digital image for the mobile platform; continuously comparing the central map to the current surroundings. However, a tremendous advantage of these systems is that they can determine how to navigate around obstructions in their path. For example, a cart is left in path that is supposed to be clear or a partially loaded shipping pallet is located amongst the racks. A tremendous benefit of the technology in these mobile robotic systems is that they do not require any infrastructure augmentation. Furthermore, they are adaptive and incorporated machine learning techniques that allow them to improve their navigation skills over time.
Over the last decade, autonomous mobile robotics were not widely recognized as a viable alternative to traditional AGV solutions particularly in the heavy manufacturing sector. However, with the rapid growth in eCommerce and the Industrie 4.0 initiative in Europe the market is prepared for widespread adoption of these solutions that require minimal deployment costs. Millions of consumers are getting a direct exposure to SLAM technology when they purchase a Roomba from iRobot. The economic viability of using mobile robotics in the warehouse was catalyzed by the Kiva solution, but now the Kiva technology is beginning to look dated. Manufacturing, warehousing and distribution centers are all seeking mobile logistic solutions that increase productivity without the having to augment existing infrastructure. Minimal infrastructure change is one of the key benefits of using mobile robotics with autonomous navigation. There are numerous other operational metrics that autonomous mobile robotics provide such as improved workforce safety and increased labor productivity.
As increasingly more companies seek to make a digital transformation, the use of mobile robotics will play a role for many that seek to add the ultimate in flexibility into their operations while also having the option to scale up relatively quickly. The market for these solutions has the potential to develop even more rapidly if a third party would emerge to provide short term leasing of mobile robotics so that distribution centers and warehouses could scale up for seasonal demand. The ease of integration of autonomous mobile systems makes this a viable business opportunity for a third party.