2010 The Year of the Material Handling Robot

The Robotics Industry Association (RIA) reports that North American overall robot sales are up 40% in the first half of the year (www.robotics.org) with orders from the material handling sector up 51%. According to RIA president Jeffery Burnstein, warehouse and distribution accounted for the biggest gain in automation with a growing interest in mobile as well as stationary robots and robot arms put on mobile bases. Burnstein predicts that material handling robot sales will likely get a further boost when RIA co-locates its Automate 2011 trade show (formerly International Robots, Vision & Motion Control Show) with ProMat for the material handling and logistics industries sponsored by the Material Handling Industry of America.

The Future: Artifical Intelligence

Advances in end-of-arm tooling and customized end effectors will open possibilities for more varied packaging designs and rainbow palletizing options. Intelligent AGVs with voice command and collision avoidance technology will enable safe deployment of AGVs in mixed traffic areas, allowing automation of processes previously deemed too challenging. Gantry robots will continue to gain speed, and let the DC manager handle more SKUs without the need for more space, pick modules, rack or palletizers.

A warehouse management system (WMS) can now delegate autonomous decision pathways to smarter robots. Task driven scenarios are preprogrammed into management software so that if a deficiency is detected in either a production line or a distribution environment, a robot can autonomously decide how to get product from point A to point B without waiting for instructions from the WMS. Fixed robots can call for replenishments to complete their functions and mobile robots can complete the transaction by transporting the needed goods between the stationary ones. When tasks are completed robots sign off with a wireless electronic handshake to inform the system the task is complete, and seek an opportunity charging station.

In other words, material handling robot designers are programming robots to control robots. There are currently four main classes of autonomy that are being considered: task and mission, power, failure, guidance and navigation. Right now material handling systems are adopting the simplest task autonomy but will migrate to the more expansive mission tasks in the near future.

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