Robots Haven’t Remade Warehouses Yet

When Dijit unloads boxes from a truck all day in 100-degree heat, colleagues never hear a complaint. Digit, a blue and white humanoid robot, was designed to perform heavy, menial, and dangerous tasks in warehouses.

The robot’s movements, based on years of studying how birds walk, include a slight rocking of the body when it is at rest to dispel the uncomfortable immobility that bothers humans. It also doesn’t talk because the voice recognition technology is not yet sufficiently developed.

“Instead of designing an entire warehouse around robots, we can now build robots capable of working on our terms, in our spaces and in our environment,” said Jonathan Hirst, CTO and founder of Agility Robotics, the firm behind digital.

Robotics and automation are not new in logistics; Conveyor belts, scanners, and other innovations have helped automate and accelerate a speed-obsessed industry for decades. But the pace of investment and change driven by the pandemic-era boom in e-commerce, a tight labor market and a fragile supply chain has accelerated in recent years. Experts say robotics will change how warehouses work and are designed.

“We are entering a golden era,” said Ty Brady, Chief Technology Officer at Amazon Robotics. The e-commerce giant, which helped accelerate the industry’s turn to automation in 2012 with its acquisition of robotics company Kiva Systems, has deployed more than half a million robotics units, including Proteus, its first fully autonomous mobile robot.

Labor organizations have a different point of view. Technology can make jobs more reliable and safe, but the industry is too focused on using it as a cost-saving measure, said Sheheryar Kaosji, executive director of the Warehouse Workers Resource Center, a non-profit group in California.

“They have always been looking to cut labor costs, and reducing human labor is what the industry has been looking at as a way to save money for decades,” he said.

The adoption of robotics in warehouses will grow by 50% or more in the next five years, according to surveys conducted by the Materials Processing Institute, an industry trade group. The goal is mechanical orchestration, where a team of robots, controlled by sophisticated software and artificial intelligence, can move boxes and products in a seamless environment.

“I’m worried about those owners who don’t,” said Eric Nieves, chief executive of Plus One Robotics, which has teamed up with Yaskawa America to deliver robotic arms to a FedEx sorting center in Memphis. “Even today, many warehouses are just shelving, a cart, and a clipboard. They just can’t keep up.”

Billions are being invested by big players looking to stay at the forefront. Walmart, for example, recently announced a deal with Symbotic to install its belting system, pickers and autonomous vehicles at all 42 of the retailer’s major sorting facilities.

Amazon, which accounted for 38 percent of robotics investments in the industry last year, announced in April the creation of a $1 billion Industrial Innovation Fund to support robotics companies like Agility. And grocer Kroger has opened five of its 20 planned warehouses equipped with an automated Ocado system to pack and ship fresh produce.

The seeds of the warehouse robotics surge were sown during the 2008 recession, when automakers heavily dependent on robotics experienced a significant and prolonged downturn. Many of today’s innovators have experience in the automotive industry and believe that logistics is ripe for innovation.

But unlike assembly line manufacturing, warehouses require a significant degree of flexibility. Only recently have systems such as visualization and artificial intelligence become cheap and powerful enough to sort through the tens of thousands of different items that pass through an e-commerce warehouse. This technological leap is part of a wider adoption of robotics: according to Automation Development Association.

Now the technology is becoming more widely available and making its way into the industry beyond big players like Walmart and Amazon, says Reuben Scriven, Interact Analysis Senior Analyst for Warehouse Automation. He predicts a 25 percent increase in investment in robotics and automation this year alone.

Real estate companies are also investing in robotics startups. For example, Prologis, an industrial giant with a global warehouse network, has invested tens of millions of dollars in robotics through its Prologis Ventures fund.

“Netflix is ​​the only company that was able to figure out streaming video and then all of a sudden it didn’t,” said Zack Stewart Rogers, a Colorado State University professor of logistics and warehousing who sees an emerging middle class of robotics users in the industry. “Other companies will start to catch up with Amazon’s lead.”

Firms such as Fetch and Locus are in high demand for robots to transfer goods to humans. These so-called cobots, which may look like trash can-carrying Segways, move between workers throughout the facility. With the rising cost of raw materials like steel, these robots are becoming cheaper and faster to deploy than automated conveyor systems. Some firms have even adopted robot-as-a-service business models to rent out these machines to warehouse operators.

Many industry analysts add that the increased interest in robots is due to the tight labor market, which is linked to high employee turnover and competitive pay in other areas. Automation is one of the levers that companies can use to solve a problem.

In the near future, robots will not replace workers, Scriven said, but rather make them more efficient and productive. Humans will be crew commanders, command and maintain teams of robots.

And robots can help with recruitment, said William O’Donnell, managing director of Prologis Ventures.

“This will improve the quality of the experience for the workforce, because instead of doing routine manual work, people will learn how to operate the robot to keep it running,” he said. “It will create a career path and a more challenging skill set.”

But workers don’t necessarily find significant benefits in advances in robotics, Mr. Kaosji, working lawyer. Investment in new technology must be linked to labor force participation to ensure that the evolution of jobs does not leave long-standing workers behind.

According to him, working at the speed of machines will overload employees. “Mostly it is a conveyor belt problem, for example, Lucy Ricardo with candy in “I love Lucy,” he said. “If your machines determine the pace of work, you have to keep up with what the machine thinks is your pace of work.”

“Builders and warehouse operators are already seeking advice on how to optimize new spaces for the next generation of robotics,” said James H. Rock, chief executive of Seegrid, which builds autonomous mobile robots that navigate warehouse floors.

He believes that “lighted” warehouses, run around the clock by robots that do not require air conditioning or human-tuned lighting, will appear in three to four years. Too many in the industry have seen the benefits of increased efficiency and reduced costs and accidents, he said.

It is unclear how much more efficient robotics will affect the overall demand for warehouse space. Symbotic, for example, claims it can deliver the same volume as a traditional warehouse operation in half the space. A human and a robot usually take up the same amount of floor space in a warehouse, but only one of them needs a break room.

A bigger problem is the industry’s aging facilities: according to a report by real estate services firm Newmark, a third of warehouses are over 50 years old, with 70 percent built before the 21st century. Landlords usually do not make these investments themselves; tenants and large retailers tend to fund improvements in robotics and automation.

Warehouses need to be connected for a massive increase in power needs and charging stations, as well as more sophisticated wireless and 5G networks to enable fleets to communicate. Newmark found that energy consumption in the US industrial sector will grow more than twice as fast as any other sector in real estate in the coming decades.

“Basically we’re building the same building,” said Steve Kroes, regional partner at Transwestern, a warehouse developer. “Standard vanilla building capable of accommodating the widest range of tenants. But now they use two or three times more capacity than previous generation warehouses.”