Outlook for Piece-Picking Cobots to 2025

From my apartment window the makings of the $1.7B forecast are getting easier to see, but is automation really ready?

From my window…
Every day seems strangely like Singles’ Day in Shanghai, yet I’m in Boston. Why is that?

Non-stop delivery trucks coming and going for one thing. The traffic of brown boxes to the front door of my building is astounding. The mobile dog grooming truck has been outside for several hours. Since the millennials in the complex have like two dogs each, the truck may well be there all day.

A stylist is in coloring the hair of an older lady across the hall; a chef is arriving at 7PM to my good bud’s apartment downstairs for a very reasonably priced, cook-in dinner for he and his gal pal; groceries for nearly all of the tenants arrive daily by van; and for others Grubhub, DoorDash or Uber Eats are frequently filling the elevator with awesome aromas.

Even the dog groomers, hair stylists, chefs, and home-delivered meals also depend on brown-box deliveries to keep their businesses humming. Ms. Jeffers’ hair color has got to get to the stylist somehow. In response, the blistering e-commerce pace of warehouse throughput must be heading northwards in a hurry.

“The global e-commerce growth rate for 2020 is expected to come in at 19 percent, bringing total ecommerce sales worldwide in 2020 to $4.206 trillion.

According to Oberlo: “Online retail growth will hold strong with the total ecommerce sales surging from $2.382 trillion to $6.542 trillion between 2017 and 2023 – a 175 percent increase in just six years.

U.S. e-commerce sales will reach $794.50 billion this year (2020), up 32.4 percent year-over-year.

“We’ve seen ecommerce accelerate in ways that didn’t seem possible last spring, given the extent of the economic crisis,” said Andrew Lipsman, eMarketer principal analyst at Insider Intelligence.

“While much of the shift has been led by essential categories like grocery, there has been surprising strength in discretionary categories like consumer electronics and home furnishings that benefited from pandemic-driven lifestyle needs.”

Sure, the action on the street beneath my apartment is far from the masses clogging the Street of Eternal Happiness in Shanghai, and is not yet the tsunami of deliveries that take place there most every day, especially on November 11th, but, in microcosm, it sure feels mighty close…and getting closer.

Cobots to drive the market?
As I sit reading over an industry report titled Worldwide Industry for Piece Picking Robots to 2025—Collaborative Robots [cobots] to Drive the Market, I can easily understand why the researchers are forecasting: “The global piece-picking robots market is expected to reach $1.7 billion by 2025 (up from $95 million in 2019), registering a CAGR of 62.5%, during the period of 2020-2025.”

According to the International Federation of Robotics, cobots to date own a miniscule 3- to 4 percent of the industrial robots’ marketplace, but big changes wrought by COVID might linger long after the arrival of vaccines, which could jack up those numbers considerably. If so, and it sure looks that way, warehouse and logistics needs could easily ramp up cobot sales well beyond the projected $1.7 billion. Boston, with its 650,000 residents (four million in metro Boston), is a far cry from Shanghai’s 24 million, but the similarities of online sales are getting to look like close cousins.

The Shanghainese order online because fighting one’s way through the city’s massive crowds and mind-boggling traffic isn’t worth the time, effort and expense. Fear of pandemic is what keeps Bostonians behind their doors. Different reasons for each city, but the result is the same. Sure, there are plague worries in China like everywhere else, but COVID is just one more line item for Shanghainese to add to their long lists of reasons to shelter at home.

However, these days many Bostonians are also seeing the value in avoiding traffic, crowds, and bad weather. Ordering online has become so easy and so quick that it will most likely hang around for some time yet. It’s becoming a way of life.

And when LinkedIn publishes its “Who’s Hiring Right Now” numbers, warehouse helper needs for shipping giants like Amazon, UPS, DHL, Wal-Mart, and Target always pop to the top. The search is constantly on for incredible numbers of human pickers and packers; those numbers always seem to hover around hundreds of thousands for each employer.

At 600 packages per hour,
cobots easily outpace workers

And if the research is correct about “the amount of time that workers spend walking from location to location throughout the warehouse accounts for about 50 percent of the total pick time and represents more than 50 percent of all operational costs, then it’s plain to see why those same employers would much prefer cobot picker-packers to humans. Besides, what employer wants the headaches and expense of hiring and training temporary workers over and over and over again. The accelerating growth of e-commerce, the need for speed and productivity to service the voracious appetite for all of those brown boxes makes cobot pickers over humans a no-brainer of a decision.

Who’s buying automation solutions?
If cobots are to “drive the market” to 2025, as the report says in its title, it’s certainly not happening these days. Listening to the earning’s reports from Teradyne (parent of cobot leader, Universal Robots), is a truly sad affair. Not much is happening, and that’s from the leader of the cobot arm category.

COVID stopped sales of robots and cobots dead in their tracks, with only a few significant sales like KUKA’s 5,000 industrial big boys to BMW. Once we’re able to shake off COVID, then that “CAGR of 62.5%, during the period of 2020-2025” can manifest itself to the delight of the robot/cobot biz crowd.

As a TechXplore article, The Coronavirus Could Mark the Rise of Automation put it: “COVID-19 has left us wondering about the future of work and with this, the capacity of automation to step in where humans must step back.”

Sure, automation is figuring into the thinking of many, but six feet apart and a Plexiglas wall between people standing on expensive floorspace in any modern factory or warehouse won’t last too long. Commonsense alone is screaming out how ridiculously impractical it all is, and expensive! Such walled-off worker zoning will break the bank of most any SME (the primary buying targets for cobot sales).

Does anyone really think that automation can truly succeed with social distancing, face masks, and a trip to a ventilator if an errant sneeze droplet takes out a worker?

ABI Research is out with a commonsense, well-reasoned, and well-documented take at what’s going on and where things may go: TAKING STOCK OF COVID-19: The Short- and Long-Term Ramifications on Technology and End Markets. ABI’s chapter on INDUSTRIAL, COLLABORATIVE & COMMERCIAL ROBOTICS: Time to Reassess the Global Manufacturing Supply Chain, begins on p.17

On the street where I live
All of which means, of course, that the crazy flurry of delivery traffic on the street where I live, which has been getting heavier since last March, is actually e-commerce automation driven mostly by human labor…and not cobots.

Although we’re still way off from 2025, here’s hoping that Collaborative Robots [cobots] to Drive the Market does indeed happen sooner than later. Automation sorely needs some help.