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Bottlenecks Along the Way

Warehouse Alamo? Yes, but in Slo-mo!

Warehouse automation is rolling in and humans are being pushed out of order picking and freight handling jobs. But not fast enough! Why?

It’s not robots killing off warehouse jobs; it’s e-commerce. E-commerce means us!
A world online ordering gazillions of little brown boxes is also ordering armies of robots to get those boxes to us ASAP.
If we want to save warehouse jobs, then take a hike to the mall to do your shopping. …Not gonna happen anytime ever!

The Alamo cometh…but in slo-mo
When attending the Robotics Summit & Expo (Boston, June 5-6), it’s always an advantage to have several questions at the ready that you hope the conference can answer. Otherwise, there’s so much stimuli emanating from the agenda speakers to the tech on expo floor that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all and lose your way.

This year, one of my questions to ask the conference was simply this: “When will the warehouse meet its Alamo? How close are we to its last stand before automation takes over near-completely…and people, at least most of them, are no longer walking a mind-numbing ten to fifteen miles per day picking orders, or going bleary-eyed packing hundreds of orders per shift, or moving heavy freight around a building the size of a football stadium?”

As a former warehouse worker (United Auto Workers, Local 422; Teamsters, Local 25), I can relate to Seth King, a former Amazon warehouse employee, telling Vox that “it took him two months on the job at Amazon to realize that the ‘grueling, depressing’ work was bringing him to ‘the lowest point in my life.’”

Not to single out Amazon here, because all warehouse labor sucks. It’s bad for your health and your body doesn’t last beyond your 50th birthday. Most Teamsters don’t live much beyond their retirement.

That’s to say nothing of warehouse accidents like slips, falls, and trips, which tally up to 95 million lost work days each year (U.S. only), and cost employers per worker injury $38,000 in direct costs and $150,000 in indirect costs.

In short, a warehouse is not a great workplace to spend a lifetime. Yet millions do: “In 2017, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that nearly four million Americans work in warehouses as supervisors, material handlers, or packers. That’s almost 3 percent of the total labor force; collectively, they earn more than $100 billion in annual wages.”

Robots dislodging human workers from their warehouse posts is happening for sure, but in slo-mo. Although ABI Research is out with a new paper headlined, “By 2025, over 4 million commercial robots will be installed in over 50,000 warehouses”,  which seems like a lot, but is actually a pittance stacked up against the tens of millions of warehouses globally.

In fact, manual labor, according to studies by Reuters and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is far more resistant to change than previously thought. And counter to the now-infamous 2013 Oxford study, The Future of Employment, that projected 47 percent of U.S. jobs would soon be goners, the new OECD study reassess that number downward to 9 percent. A huge drop, but still a significant number even at 9 percent.

While attending events like the Robotics Summit & Expo, I get to ask silly questions of the best in the robotics business. The coming warehouse Alamo was one of them.

Of course, most people look at me oddly when I ask about a warehouse Alamo; their eyes immediately fill with: “Dude, why did you just ask me that completely inane question?”

Most then proceed to politely reply that they haven’t a clue about a warehouse Alamo anytime soon, but that their product or service will definitely hasten the day.

“Ah, how so? And when will your product or service make an impact that matters?”

Helping me out this year was the fact that Amazon was simultaneously holding its Re:MARS conference in Vegas, and it was showing the crowd there some interesting answers to my question. Amazon even debuted two new warehouse robots (Pegasus and Xanthus) previously under wraps (see video).

Then too, helpful news reports were circulating about things like the formation of Robust.AI, or DHL investing $300 million in new logistics robots, or that piggybacking cobot arms atop AGVs was getting hotter; or that navigation of AGVs and robots in warehouses had a new killer app.

There’s huge money to made from automation. In the United States, reports McKinsey, the growth of logistics “has averaged 15 percent annually over the past decade, and the range of goods has expanded dramatically. That’s been good for logistics companies. We [McKinsey] estimate that, out of every $100 in e-commerce sales, these companies (or e-tailers’ in-house logistics units) are collecting $12 to $20, a massive increase from the $3 to $5 spent on logistics in a typical brick-and-mortar retail operation.”

There are, however, bottlenecks along the way to the lights-out warehouse; impediments that slow things down or even cause gridlock. There are many; here are two:

Clearing up bottlenecks to robot automation
Viewpoint #1: Humatics
The Humatics booth at the Robotics Summit & Expo offered up interesting tech regarding one particular bottleneck to robot automation in warehouses; mainly, “deficiencies of legacy navigation technologies” that limit AGVs.

Hmmm, sounded interesting, however, AGVs look competent enough to my untrained eye. What’s up? Turns out that the company’s COO, Raghav Gupta, was making a presentation called: The Growing Pains of AGV Navigation. I took a seat.

“AGVs are essential to the Industry 4.0 ideal of smart, flexible factories and logistics centers, but the deficiencies of legacy navigation technologies are limiting their benefits,” was his message. “Magnetic tape and fiducial-based systems are inflexible and damage-prone, while LiDAR systems are expensive and restricted to indoor, structured environments. Vision-based navigation has come a long way but still fails in numerous industrial settings.”

Humatics’ tech is all about “microlocation at centimeter scale” deployed like WiFi as a factory-wide service to provide precise positioning and motion tracking of AGVs and mobile robots.

Why does it matter? Well, co-founder, David Mindell, says: “Microlocation improves AGV performance in three specific areas for factories and logistics centers. First, it enables effortless route changes without remapping or infrastructure adjustments. Next, it works in both indoor and outdoor environments in all weather conditions. Finally, it allows for navigation in open and constantly-changing environments where vision systems degrade.”

All of which means that hundreds of thousands of autonomous robots, like Amazon’s 200,000, or the soon-to-be millions of same in the near future, could increase their performance and precision capabilities through “microlocation”?

This could be an interesting startup in what’s forecast to be a $2.5 billion market by 2027. Humatics has investor belief to the tune of $50 million in Series A financing.

Viewpoint #2: Robust.AI
Another bottleneck to clear up for robot automation was aired by another just-announced startup, Robust.AI. Yes, that’s its name, as in strong, vigorous, sturdy, tough, and powerful.

As The Next Web said of the vaunted group of tech brainiacs behind Robust.AI: “Today’s robots are frustratingly close to being useful, but nobody’s figured out how to get them there just yet. Here’s hoping Robust.AI moves that needle.”

“Right now, robots can only work in very limited environments,” said co-founder Gary Marcus.  “They’re not very flexible — they’re more like automation than they are like autonomy.”

With an undisclosed investment from Playground’s Andy Rubin, the non-stealth startup of Marcus & Co., as its press release and website make abundantly clear, is all about things cognitive; building bots seems not to be part of the plan: “Current robots are extremely limited, typically relegated to highly controlled environments, unable to function in dynamic, open-ended environments, and poorly equipped to deal with the unexpected.

“We are building an industrial-strength cognitive platform — the first of its kind — to enable robots to be smart, collaborative, robust, safe and genuinely autonomous, with applications in a broad range of verticals from construction and delivery to warehouses and domestic robots.”

Is it risk time for logistics?
As McKinsey’s Automation in logistics: Big opportunity, bigger uncertainty, points out: “Logistics companies are intrigued by the potential of automation but wary of the risks. Accordingly, they are investing conservatively. McKinsey research estimates investment in warehouse automation will grow the slowest in logistics, at about 3 to 5 percent per year to 2025. That’s about half the rate of logistics companies’ customers, such as retail and automotive (6 to 8 percent) and pharmaceuticals (8 to 10 percent).”

Fortunately, logistics has DHL and Amazon to lead the charge into big-time warehouse automation.

Although news media stories give off the feel that warehouses are dominoes to robot automation, the Alamo is indeed well on its way, but in slo-mo.

Enough time for us to figure out how we’ll retrain all the displaced pickers and packers; Amazon alone has over 600,000 working its global machine.

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