And they look surprisingly like we thought they would when we were children
Robots have been a part of manufacturing for a generation, but they don’t ‘look like robots’. They are cranes, grabbers and welding tools attached to a big immobile machine. Robots should be able to move about, and perhaps warn Will Robinson about ‘Danger!’
The good news, at least to children of the 60’s and 70’s, is that machines a bit more like we’d always imagined are becoming available, and practical, for use in the warehousing and distribution industries. Some of the more advances systems were shown off at the Supply Chain World Conference not long ago. It seems that improved computing power, lower costs and better vision and mobility systems are already working in the industry.
The builders of these working bots are adapting technology developed in other industries. Micorsoft’s Kinect motion control sensor (originally designed for video games) can allow robots to ‘see’ their environment in three dimensions both effectively and inexpensively. They can even recognise faces… more often than not. Tools developed for the automotive and consumer electronics industries, improved computer power, dextrous actuators (hands, for us civilians) and sensor systems, are finally making ‘proper’ robots possible.
But you said in warehousing and distribution?
I did. How about fully autonomous forklifts? A company called Egemin Automation has built a robotic forklift which can pick up and deliver carts, rolls and pallets without a driver, or even a remote control. Seegrid has one that guides itself visually, just as a human driver would, making accidents a lot less likely.
There are robots for piece picking too. Kiva systems changes things around by having the robots bring the storage racks to the human pickers, speeding their work dramatically. Knapp AG is working on a similar ‘shuttle’ system that brings the goods to your people while they carry on with packing.
But they don’t have arms and legs. Oh, wait… Rethink Robotics is working on a system called Baxter that at least has two arms and a face. It will, when it is finished, pick things up and carry them as directed by a human employee. It’s still in development, though.
But don’t worry. They all assure us that a Maximum Overdrive scenario is completely out of the question. More’s the pity.