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Industrial robotics: on a roll?

AutoStore (pictured) is an automated warehouse “picking” system designed to grow incrementally. Instead of banks of boxes, stock is held in a vertical grid system, with robots running across the top on rails.

The system works out what is most in demand, and holds that at the top of the stack, with the least sought after stock at the bottom.The robots calculate the best way to access stock and arrange the boxes as efficiently as possible. A video of AutoStore in action is available here.

The technology was originally invented in Norway in the 1990’s by a company called Jakob Hatteland Logistics. The system claims to require 40-50% less floor space for storage, as well as other benefits such as speed of processing (some robot pickers can achieve speeds of up to 30mph). Companies currently using it include Asda and Ocado.

As a business grows, volumes increase and capacity becomes paramount.  For many enterprises - such as Net a Porter - that’s when it becomes expedient to introduce automation into a facility.

Net a Porter recently introduced robots developed by logistics specialists TGW in its warehouses. The fashion retailer now estimates that the order and despatch process has speeded up by a staggering 500%. TGW engineers are on site around the clock to make sure nothing slows the process down and the bots are integrated into Net a Porter’s own stock tracking and distribution system, which was developed in-house.

However, investing in robotic systems is still an expensive business with costs amounting to millions of pounds for bespoke systems such as that developed for Net a Porter. Amazon solved this problem by buying out automation company Kiva Systems. The cost?  $775m.

For businesses which don’t have millions to spare, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute may have the solution. Researchers are working on a project to develop autonomous warehouse vehicles using "swarm intelligence," which means the robots themselves will decide how to move around the space to best efficiency.

“We want to demonstrate that cellular materials-handling technology makes sense not only technically but also economically as an alternative to classic materials-handling technology and shelf-control units,“ says institute executive director Michael ten Hompel. If trials are successful, the autonomous vehicles could soon be going into service in warehouses.

In the UK, the market for robots is set to grow by 3.4% from 2011 to 2016, largely as a result of increased investment in automation by food and drink manufacturers, according to market analyst IMS Research.

Meanwhile, in China, industrial robots are already cheaper than workers in the country's eastern regions. The number of industrial robots sold in China quadrupled between 2006 and 2011. China's working-age population is set to shrink and labor costs are likely to spiral upward as a result. That has given a fresh impetus to the development of robots.

Globally, 2011 saw robot sales soar 38 percent to 166,028 units, by far the highest level recorded for a single year, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

China now ranks as the globe's sixth-largest market in terms of robot installation, and the IFR predicts that the country will overtake Japan as the top consumer of industrial robots by 2014.

 
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