Robots are crucial to the always-on supply chain

Mobile robots speed material flow to fulfillment workstations and between manufacturing processes and help consolidate storage space and future-proof operations. Robotic mobility leads to traceability and predictability on the road to Industrie 4.0 and is crucial to developing a supply chain that never stops.


The time between click to buy and the doorstep, or dock, is measured in hours. And customers always want it faster and cheaper. There’s no time to spare. If you don’t deliver, your competitors will.

The supply chain never sleeps. Neither do robots.

Mobile robots speed material flow to fulfillment workstations and between manufacturing processes. They cut picking errors and boost throughput. They help consolidate storage space and future-proof operations. Robots offset rising labor costs and shortages. They improve ergonomics and make better use of your skilled workforce. Robotic mobility leads to traceability and predictability on the road to Industrie 4.0. This is the road to the always-on supply chain.

The 2016 MHI Annual Industry Report charts the emergence of the “digital, always-on supply chain.” Nearly 900 industry executives were surveyed. The study found that 51% of respondents consider robotics and automation a competitive advantage or disruptive technology. At the same time, 58% see hiring and retaining a skilled workforce to implement these technologies as a major hurdle. Suppliers need reliable, cost-effective, plug-and-play solutions. A host of new robotics startups and established players are delivering the goods.

The Amazon effect

When Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012, they gained a competitive advantage with robotics. Patent filings have kept that technology in Amazon’s court in the U.S. However, the CarryPick system in Europe works similarly.

The modular CarryPick goods-to-person system uses low-profile robot vehicles (AGVs guided by QR codes on the floor) to drive underneath mobile racks and deliver them to workstations. From there, workers pick and place the requested items in shipping boxes. See Swisslog’s CarryPick system in action at global logistics company DB Schenker.

The AGV Carrier used in the CarryPick system is the result of joint development between Swisslog and German company Grenzebach. Indian startup GreyOrange has a similar system with a fleet of “Butler” robots that deliver shelves of goods to manned pick stations.

Some say that Amazon’s Kiva acquisition set the industry back by removing advanced technology from the market, while others say the move may have actually spurred more innovation. The array of automation technologies vying for your factory, warehouse, and distribution center (DC) intralogistics is multiplying.

Self-driving vehicles

Today, robots cost less and are easier to use. While the current adoption rate is at 35%, according to MHI, the rate of robotics and automation adoption is expected to rise to 74% within 6 to 10 years. For many DCs and manufacturers, just finding enough workers is a major challenge and one of the main drivers of rising robot deployment.

“The major driver for our customers is labor shortage. We have a number of customers who find it extremely difficult to hire and retain enough people to run their facility and support their growth,” says Simon Drexler, Director of Industrial Solutions at Otto Motors in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

Otto Motors is the industrial division of Clearpath Robotics Inc. While Clearpath is best known for its unmanned vehicles for researchers, including the award-winning Husky, Grizzly, and Kingfisher robots, the Otto Motors division focuses on self-driving vehicles for the manufacturing and warehouse space.

Sometimes called self-driving vehicles, all of the robots in this space share some common characteristics even though their form factors and payload capacities vary greatly. Self-driving vehicles or autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are often distinguished from automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Traditional AGVs typically require some type of existing infrastructure or facility modifications, whether they are magnetic strips or navigational beacons embedded in the floor, to guide the vehicles on a designated path. They work well in predictable environments.

“If you’re always moving materials directly from point A to point B and those points never change, and the path between those points never changes, then an AGV is a good platform,” Drexler said. “But that type of environment applies to a very small percentage of the material transport market.”

By contrast, self-driving vehicles (SDVs) or AMRs navigate like GPS in your car. The SDV navigates according to maps in its robotic brain, and by using various sensors, it avoids and steers around unexpected obstacles. It autonomously determines the best route or path to get from point A to point B with real-time intelligence.

“One of the challenges that our clients have expressed with traditional AGV technology is that each time a change is required in their facility, and therefore their AGV system, it’s a painful process,” Drexler said. “You have to change the track and then you have to change the programs. Usually it’s a week before the AGV system is up and running again. With SDV technology and the intelligence that’s built into these vehicles, you can literally make a change with a click of a button. You can reduce one week’s worth of effort into 10 minutes.”

SDVs allow for changes and flexibility in building layouts, new machinery installations, and facility additions.

Autonomous mobile robot transports materials throughout the warehouse without the need for special infrastructure. Courtesy: Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Otto Motors“Self-driving vehicles enable new applications to be automated because of the level of flexibility they offer within industrial environments,” Drexler said. “By not requiring any infrastructure to navigate, the solution is able to grow and change with your organization.”

Ready for Industrie 4.0

The secret behind the autonomous navigation of these self-driving vehicles is the software. It’s the sensors that make robots perceptive and it's the algorithms that make them smart.

“The software is the most important component of the system,” Drexler said. “That’s the intelligence in the self-driving vehicle.”

He describes Otto’s three primary software platforms: “You have the core, the Clearpath OS, which is the brain of the vehicle. You have the fleet manager, which tells the vehicles what to do. And then you have the Clearpath app, which is the user interface for system status updates and key performance indicators.”

Drexler said mobile robots like Otto are already primed for Industrie 4.0 implementation. Smart robots lead to a smart factory.

“When you control material flow inside a facility, you have access to almost 100 percent of critical operational data. Industrie 4.0 is all about the consumption and analysis of operational data. That’s really what’s driving the interconnection of devices.”

He provides an analogy: “Imagine a manufacturing process. It doesn’t matter what the manufacturing process is, it’s a black box. I put parts into it, something happens, and parts come out. If I know when I bring materials to that black box and when I pick them up from the back end, I know where all my inventory is. I know the cycle time of the production cell. I know when it’s up and when it’s down. I know how many units I’ve produced and my quality rate.

“The Otto system is a springboard to help people implement Industry 4.0 into their facility, because it gives you access to almost all critical operational data,” he continues. “Otto is automating the inputs and the outputs of those processes, so it is a major leap forward in closing the automation loop inside of industrial centers. By closing the automation loop, you get more traceability, more predictability, and more control of your process.” 

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