Automation has existed in some form in warehouses for decades, all part of the pursuit of greater productivity, efficiency and making better use of expensive space. In recent years, robotics systems able to fulfil increasingly complex tasks have become more commonplace, representing an important shift in the development of next-generation warehouses.
A next step now being proposed by some companies is the development of robots that not only carry out a variety of roles, but are deliberately designed to look and operate like people. These humanoid robots incorporate features such as dextrous fingers and an ability to transport heavy boxes around the warehouse.
The innovation that goes into creating these machines is undoubtedly impressive, but their development raises some important questions. Are humanoid robots the future, or do their less anthropomorphic counterparts actually have greater potential to make the warehouse safer and more efficient?
Rise of the machines
As a species, we’ve long wondered whether it would be possible to build robots that can behave, talk and even experience emotions like we do. Science fiction is peppered with them: some are benign and loveable (think C-3PO) while others have much more sinister motives (think The Terminator).
While we’re still a long way from producing sentient robots, the physical characteristics of some designs are already resembling our own. Startups such as Boston Dynamics, Apptronik and Figure have either developed, or are in the process of developing, humanoid robots that could be deployed in warehouse environments.
Apptronik’s Apollo robot, for example, is 172cm (5 feet 8 inches) tall, weighs 72.5kg and can lift objects up to 25kg in weight. Such technology is still in its infancy and has not yet been fully commercialised, but a report by Goldman Sachs has predicted the market could be worth $6bn or more in the next 10 to 15 years.
Clearly there’s plenty of promise to this technology and it will have uses in a range of different industries, but I’m not fully convinced these robots will supersede non-humanoid designs that are already highly adapted to warehouse work.
Warehouse robotics: an established art
Robots are already a common sight in many warehouses: they might not be quite as glamorous as those with human appearances, but at this point in time, they are considerably more effective.
Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), for example, are already able to do what humanoid robots are aiming to achieve, and they can do it faster and in much less space. Such a system can autonomously navigate a warehouse floor and can safely retrieve boxes or totes from shelves several metres above the ground. These can be combined with other machinery such as articulated robotic arms for picking and packing products. Crucially, these systems are underpinned by advanced software that plans, guides and analyses their every move, ensuring consistently high performance.
These systems are built for function rather than aesthetics, and are produced without needing to invest additional time and money into giving robots human characteristics. After all, wheels are much easier to design and manufacture than a human-like robotic leg, and can move a machine across a warehouse floor considerably faster. Allied with software, they are an effective way of making the warehouse safer and more efficient.
A robot that looks like a human, on the other hand, will likely possess many of the same limitations that we do as people when it comes to warehouse work, especially when the technology is in its infancy.
The role of human staff
There’s always plenty of debate around whether robots – humanoid or not – will threaten the jobs of people in the warehouse. This is another area where I believe non-humanoid robots hold an advantage.
The very purpose of such robots is to do things that the human body struggles to do – such as covering great distances over the course of a day – thereby making work less strenuous for human staff. Meanwhile, their time is freed up to focus on other tasks that require greater dexterity or brain power, such as more complex picking and packing jobs or monitoring the performance of robots and software.
In contrast, an anxious worker could be forgiven for thinking that humanoid robots in warehouses are intended to eventually replace them, given their characteristics mimic those of people. There’s also a point to be made about how such a machine could affect staff morale: if a robot with arms, legs and a face is brought into the warehouse, workers could interpret this as a slight against how well they do their own jobs. It’s certainly a prickly issue and one that would have to be approached with great caution in any case.
Robots the future, but a bit less human
Robotics are already a feature of the warehouse and will certainly remain so in the future, but it seems unlikely they’ll be the types we’re used to seeing in our favourite science fiction films, for the time being at least. That said, humanoid robots surely have major potential to make a difference in other industries – NASA’s Valkyrie project is a prime example. And we are all waiting for a robot to do our housework!
For now though, non-humanoid robots and their accompanying software are more established as a technology, cheaper and more viable to implement, and are built to address very specific needs that are often beyond the reach of humans. This leaves the more complex, intricate tasks to those who do them best – people.
Simon Jones, UK sales executive at Exotec