Over the past two weeks, I have been to two supply chain events and at each of them autonomous mobile robots were a focal point. The first was LogiMat, an international trade show for Intralogistics, held in Stuttgart Germany. LogiMat is a massive event, with over 60,000 attendees and exhibitors across all aspects of supply chain and logistics. Notable autonomous mobile robotics exhibitors included 6River Systems, Geek+, Magazino, and GreyOrange.
One the most impressive exhibits overall was a new to the market AMR vendor, Exotec Solutions. The Exotec system combines AMR’s with a specifically designed racking and case system. The impressive part about this vendors technology is that the mobile robots actually climb the racking (pictured above), autonomously extract a case, then climb back down and navigate to the picking station.
That said, in addition to the known vendors in the AMR space that attended and exhibited there was an abundance of new or lesser known vendors showcasing their autonomous mobile technology, ranging from pallet movement, to components shuttling, and even a robot for order fulfillment that was eerily similar to the 6River Systems Chuck robot.
The explosion of vendors in this space indicates a couple of things:
- A low barrier to product development – components are relatively inexpensive and building a mobile robot is not nearly as complicated as it once was.
- Strong demand in the market – there is a lot of moving of ‘stuff’ in the supply chain, indeed the job of the supply chain is to move boxes. Companies today realize the inefficiency of manually moving this ‘stuff’ and therefore are increasingly looking to automate these processes.
- The AMR vendor landscape is ripe for consolidation – while there is a big market for autonomous mobility, the business of building, selling, and servicing robots is not without its challenges. Leaders are emerging, others are struggling, and those coming into the market new had better come with some compelling reason for buyers to consider their product over the more established vendors.
Even though there is a low barrier to entry, there are very high barriers to success. It is no longer about task automation, there are plenty of vendors with robots that can take on mobility related tasks. It is now about leveraging robots as a source of operational data and enabling companies to create a digital alignment to physical process execution. Those vendors with the strategy, vision, capabilities, and resources to build out a software enabled robot that aligns to the operational applications is much better positioned to succeed in the market than those that are explicitly focused on building a robot to do a task. Yes, the focus should be on the task, but the value must extend beyond task execution and align to process orchestration and optimization and become a lever for data acquisition.
The second event I have recently attended was smaller than LogiMat and a more narrowly focused event, but one that highlights the importance of continued innovation in the supply chain application space. HighJump Elevate is HighJump Software’s annual user conference where HighJump executives meet with users to discuss what is going on in the supply technology space, how the company is shaping its strategy and products to meet the market, and specifically discuss the role of current and emerging supply chain technologies. Of those emerging technologies, robotics was a top focal point at HighJump Elevate this year. In addition to the content and discussions around robotics, there were at least 6 robotics vendors represented at the event: Locus Robotics, 6River Systems, RightHand Robotics, Magazino, Kindred and inVia.
The discussion around the role of robotics in the supply chain was featured on the main stage several times including during the key note session led by Sean Elliott, CTO at HighJump, on future technologies for the supply chain. Over the past several years, I have seen HighJump evolve from thinking about how robots are useful to engaging with a robotics vendor through an integration partner to today where it has formal partnerships with several AMR vendors and has successfully executed joint implementations including an implementation at a 3PL client site that included Locus Robotics, HighJump, and the integration partner E2 Solutions.
During a conversation I had with Sean Elliott he noted to me that “we see robotics as a core element in the future operations of warehousing and as a valuable tool to deliver end-to-end supply chain process improvements”. He continued with, “Our customers are recognizing the business benefits, including increasing productivity, through the use of robots and we want to make sure that we make it easy for our customers to implement this type of disruptive technology and get the most value out of their technology investments”.
The point about increasing productivity is one of the key drivers to the growth in the market. Users of robots are delivering on the promise of increased productivity within their operation, as exemplified by IDC’s 2018 Commercial Service Robotics Survey.
In IDC’s 2018 Commercial Service Robotics survey, we found that over 75% of users of commercial service robotics achieved double-digit productivity improvements. The point of improving productivity is important, especially in warehouse operations, where labor scarcity and seasonal spikes in labor requirements make it imperative that organizations look for ways to mitigate the risk of labor related challenges. One way to do that is to implement tools that empower the existing employee base and help make these workers more productive.
John Santagate is Research Director for Service Robotics at IDC. Click here to learn more about the IDC’s Robotics: Commercial Service Robots research program.