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Focus: Distribution/Materials Handling

Feature Article from Our Distribution and Materials Handling Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- Jan. 10, 2015 -


Supply Chain News: Big Advances Coming in AGVs for Distribution

Gartner Says Just 5% Adoption at High End by 2018, but Longer Term AGVs will Transform DC Operations


SCDigest Editorial Staff


Will automatic guides vehicles (AGVs) finally start to make penetration into distribution center applications?

SCDigest has been writing about that potential for many year, as a new generation of smarter, more flexible AGVs came to market in the mid-2000s, notably but far from exclusively from vendors such as Kiva Systems (now part of and Seegrid. (See New Life for AGVs in Distribution?)

SCDigest Says:

Things such as embedded analytics and use of agent-based technologies will enable the robots to optimize work across the group and respond to unforeseen events, such as a breakdown or a bottleneck.
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But progress has still been slow in the broader market - the exception being Amazon's rollout of some 15,000 Kiva robots across 10 DCs in 2014.

In its global logistics "predicts" for 2015, the analysts at Gartner believe there will be some uptick in AGV-like robot adoption in DCs over the next few years, as the technology improves across a number of important dimensions.

There are actually several type of robots that are used in distribution centers. Palletizers - which look the most like traditional industrial robots - take cases away from divert lanes of one kind or another and build mixed SKUs pallets. These palletizing robots may become even more popular in combination with various automated case picking (ACP) systems.

One type Of ACP system itself can also be considered a robotic device as well - so-called "gantry systems" in which a case grabbing mechanism (usually a vacuum system) moves horizontally and vertically on the gantry to select cases from full pallets on the floor. As cases are picked, the gantry system then generally drops them onto some form of takeaway conveyor.

A new generation of humanoid robots - perhaps most notably the "Baxter" unit from Rethink Robotics - are also just starting to play a role. These types of robots have been designed to very safe and work right alongside other DCs workers and provide significant flexibility over previous robots. They can be used in areas like kitting, and someday maybe even for something like split cases picking.

Which leaves us with AGVs, which pick up and deliver products in an automated fashion, generally at a pallet level. These systems have seen limited adoption in DCs in the past because they were primarily designed for various fixed-path movements common in manufacturing, not the dynamic world of products inside a fast-paced DC.

Gartner notes that "Warehouse robots are not new, but new types of robotics are emerging to address the limitations of complex automated warehouses of the past, and are advanced evolutions of previous generations of AGVs."

While acknowledging that overall penetration of AGVs in distribution centers will remain low, Garter believes there will start to be some level of adoption in sophisticated DCs over the next few years, driven by improvements in AGV technology across a large number of characteristics.

Those include:

Cost: The allure of warehouse robots will be to reduce some upfront costs inherent in building complex, highly automated facilities. Although the long-term total cost of ownership might not be that different, the upfront cost and the ability to prototype and phase implementations will favor robots for certain applications, such as goods-to-man order picking.

Flexibility: One of the downsides to large-scale automation, or automated picking systems (such as pick-to-light systems and carousels), is that these are fairly inflexible systems. The automation design needed to be very specific upfront, and change was expensive and time consuming.

Because of the flexible and mobile nature of robots, the process can be designed and the robots instructed to work to the process. The vision is that the robots will be almost as flexible as humans in structuring the work to fit the process.

Adaptability: Like flexibility, adaptability has historically been a challenge in large-scale automation, because the cost to change the automation can be high. Although some materials handling automation vendors are now making more-adaptable systems, this issue will continue to favor robots that can adapt not only to process changes, but also to changes in work within a day.

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )


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Scalability: Although large-scale automation was justifiable for high-volume environments, it was typically too costly and complex for smaller environments. Robots offer the potential to scale down and up. Along with having flexibility and adaptability, they are able to grow more easily with the needs of a business.

Utility: Historically, automation was designed to fit very specific purposes. If the purpose changed, then the automation had to change. Today, warehouse robots are fairly limited in utility (they do specific things well, others not well and some things not at all). However, this will be an area of innovation over the next decade. The goal will be to have software determine the utility, instead of hardware being limited to one or two tasks. Innovation will continue in areas such as vision control, touch sensitivity and more flexible movements that can fit a variety of tasks.

Intelligence: This is where notable innovations have already occurred and where much of the future innovation will take place. Where AGVs were dumb and had to follow rigid travel paths - often following wires or lines on a floor - robots will need the ability to move around unencumbered by rigid travel paths. Furthermore, many advancements are focusing on how groups of robots can interact with each other and how they distribute work among themselves.

Things such as embedded analytics and use of agent-based technologies will enable the robots to optimize work across the group and respond to unforeseen events, such as a breakdown or a bottleneck.

While Gartner only expects that something like 5% of even DCs with complex picking operations will have implemented these robots by 2018, longer term it does expect "Warehouse robots will transform warehouse operations over the coming decades as the costs and complexities decrease, which will open the market up to more companies. Labor reductions seem the most likely drivers, but improvements in overall throughput and productivity will be the primary value, whether labor is reduced or not.

Interestingly, it also sees logistics applications outside the DC, notably in moving goods from delivery trucks in the back of stores to the proper area of the floor for stocking.

Do you see much promise for AGVs in distribution? Why or why not?
Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button (email) or section (web form) below.

Recent Feedback

This is an extremely interesting article with many implications for the future of logistics and distribution. I do see much promise for automated guides vehicles (AGVs) in distribution, especially considering the upcoming advances in AGVs described in the article. The benefits of this systematization are already reaping companies like Amazon the benefit of cost savings and highly efficient streamline processes. With that said, I can also foresee some effects that the advancement of automation could have on the economy as a whole. A decrease in blue collar workers may prove to affect employment rates as automated systems begin to popularize. With the adoption of the AGV trend growing into manufacturing-heavy companies worldwide, working class jobs may soon become obsolete. Factory jobs are bound to decrease, while more specialized fields of work open up in the computer programing and software development arena. Another potential issue that should be considered is the legal implications that may arise from working alongside specialized machinery and robotics. This could potentially create complicated and messy lawsuits to surface if ever an accident between man and machine were to occur on the manufacturing floor. While expectations of AGV implementations still remain a low percentage within the next 5 years, these robotics are definitely a powerful force to be reckoned with as our world gets more and more automated.

Student - OM 337.3
The University of Texas at Austin
Feb, 16 2015