The future isn’t dark after all

Where is automation heading? At the recent “Robotics for the Smart Factory 2018”, an event sponsored by the Association of German Engineers (VDI), representatives from industry and science discussed the latest trends, ideas, and innovations. The main message out of the Baden-Baden conference is that highly promising opportunities are opening up for warehouses and supply chains.

The world of intralogistics is undergoing a lot of change and attracting attention from players outside the industry: “We believe it has a very promising future down the not-too-distant road,” said a representative from a large manufacturer of industrial robots. Even though factories are already highly automated, there are still numerous processes within warehouse systems with potential for improvement. In fact, an oft-heard comment during the conference was how production was being optimized at the expense of logistics, which has often been regarded by management as a rather unpopular priority. In a perfect world, logistics was to quietly perform its tasks in the background with managers reluctant to get involved in its processes. However, this perspective has undergone a sea change with many companies now discovering the potential for innovation in their logistics processes.

And it was the prevailing sentiment at the December event hosted by the VDI Knowledge Forum. “Robotics for the Smart Factory 2018” which featured a variety of topics on its agenda that are causing companies to stand up and take notice at the moment – from automation and autonomous systems to machine learning. Which areas can machines take over tasks performed by humans? How does it function when robots work together with humans?

There is no contradiction between autonomy and collaborative systems.

Professor Johannes Fottner, chair of Material Handling, Material Flow, and Logistics at the Technical University of Munich

Dark or smart?

“There is no contradiction between autonomy and collaborative systems,” stressed Professor Johannes Fottner, chair of Material Handling, Material Flow, and Logistics at the Technical University of Munich. Intelligent, cooperative robots might result in a more practical system than fully automated production systems. While a few exist, ‘dark factories’ – a concept where robots perform tasks needing no light nor humans to get the work done – they have never become widespread, and for good reason.

What exactly is autonomy in this context? When fed with all the tax laws, will robots eventually be able to fill out our tax returns, as Professor Kai Furmans from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology would certainly like? “The problem is that the tax code is not without its contradictions,” he noted. And this is also the case with typical logistics processes. Even machine learning would not be able to easily resolve such contradictions, Furmans explained. However, machines can help us gather knowledge, process it and draw logical conclusions.

Humans and machines complement each other

Models where the strengths of humans and machines complement each other was a prominent topic featured in the discussions, presentations and general conversations of the 2-day event. While the fact that humans grow tired and are prone to error are generally cited as typical shortcomings when pitted against robots in warehouse processes, Fottner focused on a more obvious problem: “In my view, the greater disadvantage for us as humans is that we don’t have a USB or Wi-Fi portal.” In other words, humans need much more time to understand and process information than a machine powered by software. When it comes to picking and sorting goods, a human is still better at reaching into a box and identifying items than the latest robot available. Perhaps machines, ‘smart’ glasses and other innovative systems can help to overcome this aspect?

Various companies are already thinking about how they can benefit from autonomous systems. The German retail chain giant dm-drogerie stocks several thousand products and they all have to be placed on the right shelves every morning. No robot will be capable of doing that in the foreseeable future, but the management team would like to see store employees getting some help with the pre-sorting of products and, more importantly, the physically demanding task of transporting them to the shelves. Mail and logistics provider DHL, in contrast, is faced with the challenge of constantly increasing volume. According to the German-based company, international e-commerce is growing at an annual rate of 27 percent, which is much faster than domestic e-commerce. Intelligent autonomous trucks must be able to support order pickers as they move around. DHL is also testing automated vehicles for couriers and self-flying drones.

No standard technologies

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or robots which can grab, put away and put back items was a desire expressed repeatedly during the conference. A striking conundrum on display at the event was that though numerous companies are clearly looking for automated logistics solutions to give them the edge, many have very specific requirements. Standardized, packaged solutions do not seem to be the way of the future. Nor do they currently exist. In some cases, many large companies are simply deciding to build their own autonomous support systems for warehouses and factories. “We don’t really want to make robots because we are vehicle manufacturers,” admitted one conference participant, adding, “Still, we see the huge potential in logistics and we currently cannot find a manufacturer that can deliver what we need.”

The message for the intralogistics industry is clear: There is more than enough potential. Companies are taking a fresh look at their logistics processes and are ready to embrace change.

“There has never been a better time to work in the supply chain segment than today,” expressed a supply chain manager with a major global player. “ Previously, our area was never taken seriously.” However, that is all changing with companies having a load of options to select from and experiment with – autonomous vehicles, drones, and artificial intelligence – the potential is very big.

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