March 30, 2022
By Keith Shaw
Thousands of people gathered in Atlanta this week for the MODEX 2022 event, which showcases supply chain and logistics solutions for companies aiming to get products into the hands of customers. A huge focus of the show in recent years has been the growth of automation and robotics systems, which was on display again this year.
Because MODEX is held every two years (it alternates with ProMat, which is run by the same events company), the last time the event was held was in March 2020, the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Last year’s ProMat was virtual, which means this was the first time that many attendees (myself included) returned to a tradeshow environment.
This gave the event a very energetic feel, with most interactions having a, “I’m just happy to do this meeting face-to-face instead of via Zoom” feel to it. In many cases, companies were happy to showcase and demonstrate their technologies that they developed over the past few years instead of just showing off their shiny, new devices. There were plenty of news announcements though, so check our site for coverage of those. In my discussions with companies I could also see some general trends emerging. Here’s a quick list of what I saw:
Trend #1: Mature AMR companies are scaling
Companies that have been developing autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for the past five to seven years have reached the point beyond their initial proof of concepts, as well as their pilot deployments. Those that run large warehouse environments or logistics operations are now partnering with other companies to scale up those deployments. Acquisitions in this space over the last few years (Zebra buying Fetch Robotics, Shopify buying 6 River Systems, and Locus Robotics acquiring Waypoint Robotics) have solidified the market to make the companies more stable.
One executive I spoke with said it would be hard to convince a customer to look at an AMR startup given the choices that already exist in this space, such as Geek+, Locus, 6 River, Fetch/Zebra, Vecna Robotics, GreyOrange, etc. However, I don’t think this means that the market is oversaturated, but startups definitely need some innovative features to make them look unique or better than some of these first movers.
Trend #2: Robot Firms Explore New Applications
In the robotic picking space, companies were demonstrating new ways that robots could assist with warehouse tasks that previously were too difficult for robots or not as high a priority. For example, both Berkshire Grey and Osaro were showcasing how their robots could assist companies by integrating with an autobagging system, by performing auto-bagging for single-item purchases in e-commerce that previously would be handled by a human worker manually placing items into the bag. Another application on display was using a robot arm to perform mixed-SKU case palletizing and de-palletizing, an important process for many companies as products or orders come down a conveyor belt that need to then be loaded onto a pallet or sorted for further storage or delivery. Mujin made a big splash at its booth showing this concept, as well as in the MHS booth (along with an integration from HAI Robotics). Even cobot maker Universal Robots had one of its cobots showcasing how a cobot could handle this task.
Trend #3: There’s a Place for Picking Robots in the Warehouse
While AMR companies are clearly designed for warehouse environments, companies that perform picking tasks through the use of industrial (or cobot) arms, along with enhanced vision systems or AI-powered systems were on display. Companies such as Plus One Robotics and Ambi Robotics, for example, have seen success in working with parcel companies to help pick and sort packages with their robot systems. RightHand Robotics continues to showcase its piece-picking abilities through its unique gripper that combines robotic fingers with suction capabilities. Companies that need to automate a process that involves having something picked out of a bin or off a conveyor can feel confident that a robot arm now has the ability to do this – at least with most items. Fringe cases still exist (large bags, reflective surfaces and small tiny items still create issues), but one executive told me those examples provide both a challenge and opportunity for robotics programmers to determine the best way to handle those items to improve their software.
Trend #4: Partnerships Will Further Warehouse Automation
I was happy to see examples where robot companies that mainly develop robot arms were also partnering up with companies that make mobile robots. It makes sense within a warehouse setting. Having an order picked from storage (whether those storage areas are shelves or within a massive storage/shelving system like those employed by OPEX or AutoStore) and then delivered to a station, where a robot can then pick the item and place it somewhere else, will be the next big thing to further automation. In many cases, a company could almost fully automate the process from having an order placed, picked, packed and shipped, depending on the different companies they decide to work with. It’s not yet fully “lights out” automation, but we are closer now than we were a few years ago. Most companies, however, agree that humans will still be needed for those high-value tasks and edge cases that humans are still much better at.
Trend #5: At Least Two ‘Holy Grail’ Challenges Remain for Robots
When I asked companies about what challenges remain in terms of robots and automation within warehouses, most of them mentioned either the loading/unloading process onto or off of a truck, as well as mobile piece picking (sometimes referred to as mobile manipulation).
In the loading/unloading space, there are several startups working on systems that attempt to automate this, but many feel that the industry is not quite there yet (so keep watching for new startups, deployment details or mergers in this space to see if it gets solved).
Mobile manipulation will be valuable for companies that do not want to invest into a giant automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) like OPEX or AutoStore. For warehouses that still have smaller items on regular racks or shelves, having a human pick an order and place it on a robot is still better than having them manually walk around pushing a cart. But the next step for these operations will be to have a robot that can move through a warehouse, find the items on the shelves, pick it with a robot arm and then either deliver it back to a packer, or place it on another mobile robot. While tasks that have a robot arm putting things on a mobile robot is something that is happening now, the picking robot remains stationary. Merging these two robots into one is the goal eventually.
But I’m pretty confident that given continued advances and lowering costs in computing, vision and artificial intelligence, these challenges will be solved in the next five years as well.
Keith Shaw is the managing editor of Robotics-World.