Demand for e-commerce in the US is soaring, and labor shortages aren’t going away. One way logistics companies can mitigate these issues is with better automation of mobile robots. Many warehouses are now starting to think about full workflow automation.
Achieving this requires the integration of a combination of specialized mobile robots, each performing different functions. But those looking to go down this route quickly run into a problem: Few vendors offer a full lineup of robots that can do it all. While they claim to do it all, no single supplier offers the best product for every specialized warehouse application. The ideal situation from the customer’s point of view is to choose the “best” products from different manufacturers and integrate them. Finding a software platform sophisticated enough to do this effectively is a major challenge.
One reason why now is the time to consider integrating robots from multiple vendors is simple: mobile robots are mature. The market currently abounds in affordable, capable, and reliable mobile robots. Integrating products from multiple vendors is the logical next step.
Another reason logistics managers may now consider integrating robots from multiple vendors is that major advances have recently been made in the necessary scheduling software technology. Multi-robot scheduling is a tough problem to solve, but it’s one that’s been well studied by artificial intelligence (AI) scientists. Many notable advances come from video game development. In video games you have multiple agents and the challenge was trying to plan their movements. That problem was solved 10-20 years ago and this technology has now been adapted to real-world robots.
Working with bots requires you to consider the gritty, crisp details that aren’t a factor in games. Problems like machine breakdowns and how to handle acceleration. A lot of work has been done on this in the last five years, but it has mostly been applied to homogenous robot fleets (where all the robots were of the same type and from the same vendor). The other major breakthrough, even more recent, was the successful application of multi-robot planning technology to a diverse fleet of robots from different vendors. This is exponentially more difficult, but it’s a problem that has now been fixed.
Are the customers ready?
The wave of adoption of heterogeneous multi-robot fleets is only just beginning. Many mobile robot customers have not yet automated on a large enough scale to address the difficult problems inherent in multi-robot planning. But the biggest mobile robot users have been trying to go ahead and embark on workflow automation by combining “best-of-breed” robots from multiple vendors, and have run into major problems trying to do so.
Logistics companies are good at dealing with humans, but trying to integrate multiple mobile robots into warehouse operations requires a special set of robotics skills and tends to require a radical overhaul of workflow. Third party advice is often needed and mobile robot vendors may not be the best people to go to – they are experts at making great robots, but have less experience integrating their robots with those of other vendors. Companies and integrators specializing in mobile robot software are best suited to this task.
Consider an automated production line. No one would expect every machine and robot on the line to come from the same industrial automation supplier. Enter a specialized integrator who combines various products into a tailor-made solution adapted to the needs of the end user. The highly automated warehouses of the near future will be no different. Mobile robot vendors will provide specialist segmented solutions and then integrators will combine them with other solutions to create automated workflows.
As large mobile robot users solve the problem of fully automating workflow, the efficiencies they realize will push the entire market in this direction. The adoption of diverse fleets of mobile robots will therefore happen rapidly. This will result in a plethora of unique mobile robot solutions.
How heterogeneous fleets are managed
Some current solutions work by connecting existing robotic systems. This is done by functioning as an upper layer between the robot control system and the warehouse management system. But it is difficult to achieve high levels of optimization this way.
In fact, the best solutions integrate the robots themselves: they communicate directly with the machines. You can think of this as essentially building a unified robot control system that optimizes the fleet of heterogeneous robots, along with a warehouse control system that streamlines business workflow. Different robots use different drive systems and speak different “languages”. One of the capabilities needed to enable seamless mixed fleet orchestration, enabling robots to see and speak to each other and collaborate effectively, is a “universal translator”, an open platform that can coordinate with robots from any vendor .
The best software solutions for mobile robot logistics already offer this capability and the benefits are significant.
Forward-thinking warehouse managers shouldn’t wait for their competitors to act first – now is the time to consider integrating large and diverse fleets of mobile robots into fully automated workflows.