Much has been written lately in the mainstream press about the future of robotics. The consensus is that robots are coming, if they’re not here already. The New York Times, for instance, recently ran an article highlighting some of the struggles the workforce may confront as robots grow smarter.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported on some of the ways robots are automating mundane, dirty and repetitive tasks on the line in small to mid-sized businesses – the Journal’s broader point is that robots were once limited to big, asset-intensive manufacturers like the automakers but are now within reach of every day businesses.
Of course, robotics has been making inroads in automated materials handling for a number of years. I don’t know about you, but I consider an AGV, an AS/RS crane or a shuttle system a form of robotics. Robotic palletizers have been expanding in use, and, of course, there was a lot of buzz for a time around Kiva. All of that is proven technology that works in our industry, even if achieving an ROI is still a limiting factor.
The next frontier for our industry, it seems to me, is moving from pallet- and case-handling robots to piece picking robots. Last year, I wrote about GENCO’s use of piece handling robots side by side with humans in limited applications in one of its Texas distribution centers.
Still, in that application, the robot is really handling items – unloading packages from a machine and depositing them on a conveyor – and not picking them. The next evolution is robots that can replace people in mundane, labor intensive and error prone activities like picking pieces from a bin and into a tote in a pick zone and then moving that tote to a conveyor. More importantly, it’s robots that can pick at the same kind of speeds as a person and do it without a lot of changes to existing infrastructure.
Based on a recent pilot project in a drug and medical supplies distributor in Rochester, New York, that future may be closer than we think. What’s more interesting – and perhaps exciting if it works - is that the robot isn’t coming out of one of the giants of the system integration world, but from Iam Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based start-up with roots at Carnegie Mellon. And, the pilot doesn’t involve an industry giant like Cardinal Health or McKesson, but Rochester Drug Cooperative, a $1 billion a year independent distributor operating out of a 55,000 square foot distribution center with a 19,000 square foot mezzanine dedicated to slow-moving SKUs. Rochester Drug is an example of the kind of small to mid-size business considering robotics highlighted by the WSJ.
Let’s jump to the takeaway first. Tom Galluzzo, the CEO of Iam Robotics, and his colleagues have developed an autonomous mobile piece-picking robot that can navigate its way up and down a flat rack pick zone, pick pieces from a pick location to a tote and then bring that tote to a transfer station. In a lab setting, with a robot positioned next to a shelf, Galluzzo’s robot has picked 1,100 pieces an hour. “That could be a sustained rate,” Galluzzo says. “Robots don’t feel pain and they don’t get bored.”
Of course, that rate was in the lab. In a real world, albeit controlled, pilot in RDC’s slow-moving pick area, the robot moved along an aisle and hit pick rates of 200 eaches per hour, according to both Galluzzo and Larry Doud, RDC’s CEO. At full speed, Galluzzo believes the robot could have achieved 400 picks per hour on a sustained basis, depending on how much travel was required of the robot between picks, “just like people.”
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