The use of robotics and other forms of automation in warehouses is projected to increase by 50% or more in the next five years as investment soars.
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Robotic technology has been used in logistics automation for decades. As demand for more speed and efficiency has increased, the technology has evolved. When demand reached a fever pitch during the pandemic, so did investment and innovation. Robots have come a long way, and are now capable of handling many of the more monotonous, difficult and/or dangerous tasks involved in sorting and shipping goods. They are also gradually influencing how warehouses themselves are designed and run.
The current generation of robots are designed with attributes such as flexibility and compactness to easily integrate into warehouses. Flexibility is especially important in ecommerce warehouses, which handle tens of thousands of different products. And in recent years, big ecommerce firms have been taking the lead in warehouse automation. Amazon was an early mover. In 2012 it acquired Kiva Systems, a maker of mobile robotic fulfilment systems. The company, now Amazon Robotics, has since deployed more than half a million robotics units, including an autonomous mobile robot (AMR).
Last year Amazon accounted for 38% of warehouse automation investment in the U.S., according to research firm Interact Analysis. In April it announced a $1 billion Industrial Innovation Fund to support robotics firms. Walmart formed a partnership with robotic automation system developer Symbotic in 2021. This year the retail giant said it will roll out Symbotic systems at 42 regional distribution centers.
The Material Handling Institute predicts that adoption of robotics in warehouses will increase 50% or more in the next five years. As it becomes more affordable, robotic automation is no longer solely for giants of ecommerce. Analyst Rueben Scriven, who covers warehouse automation, says it is filtering down through the industry. The Association for Advancing Automation reported a 28% year-on-year increase in robot sales in 2021, driven by a surge in non-automotive sectors.
Warehouse builders and operators already seek to optimize new spaces for the new generation of robotics, said James H. Rock, CEO of AMR firm Seegrid. He believes “lights out” warehouses, run by robots around the clock, will arrive in three or four years. But for the moment, the industry’s aging spaces pose a challenge. Warehouses will need to be wired for greater power needs and charging stations, as well as more sophisticated wireless and 5G networks, the New York Times notes.
As warehouses evolve to accommodate machines, big questions arise about the role of human workers. Scriven believes robots will not replace workers in the short term, but make them more efficient and productive. William O’Donnell, Managing Director of Prologis Ventures, a fund created by the logistics real estate giant, goes further, saying robots can help with recruitment. “It will improve the quality of experience for the workforce because instead of doing a rote manual thing, individuals will learn how to manage the robot to keep it up and running,” he says. Worker advocates beg to differ.