What's a robot gotta do to get a job in your warehouse?

Dec. 1, 2004
You probably wouldn't want to hire a robot for most of your material handling jobs. For the kind of flexibility you need, the programming would be difficult

You probably wouldn't want to hire a robot for most of your material handling jobs. For the kind of flexibility you need, the programming would be difficult and the reprogramming would be expensive. But give them time. If robot manufacturers are correct, their creations will soon have the appropriate qualifications to handle your precious inventory.

"We're in the process of developing next generation software," says Hui Zhang, Ph.D., manager of the robotics and automation group of ABB's U.S. Corporate Research Center. "The big push is to use robots in the consumer goods industry. Plastic parts are increasingly popular and are made on injection molding machines. Picking and placing cookies is another area that robots can be employed. In the past those applications have involved specialized manipulators, and in low-volume runs, have been associated with high cost. In warehousing and distribution, starting with palletizing, instead of using a specially designed machine for this application, you'll be able to use a general purpose industrial robot. The cost of running a small robot is 5 cents per hour, while a medium-size robot is about 30 cents per hour."

ABB's chief technology officer in Zurich, Switzerland, Markus Bayegan, told MHM that material handling is an important field for robotic applications.

He cited as an example robots that are already employed at the Port of Hamburg, Germany.

"Ships come from all over the world to deliver in Hamburg for further distribution by truck and rail," he explained. "There are hundreds of meters of storage, huge containers stacked on top of each other. From the moment they come off a ship, containers are handled by huge robots, put away and later fetched from where they're stored for truck and rail transportation."

Bayegan says in addition to improvements in programmability and speed, wireless control will make robots good potential employees in warehousing and distribution. Wireless sensors will help communicate the position of an object to the robot. Power and control will be wireless.

"Cabling gets worn in these applications, but

with wireless controls, maintenance costs will be reduced significantly and uptime will increase," he predicted. "This will enable us to introduce this technology in several areas where previously it was too expensive. That includes warehousing."

ABB is working with universities around the world on research and development. This will bring the technologies discussed here into the real world much faster. Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University is one of ABB's R&D partners. Dr. Wyatt S Newman, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Case, says programming will soon be as simple as giving the robot verbal instructions. Then, in picking applications, for example, the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags you may be slapping and shipping on cases you ship to Wal-Mart might play a role in getting robots to pick the order.

"One of the difficulties is to make a machine smart enough to recognize something, "Newman explains. "RFID sidesteps that whole problem. Instead of dealing with the ambiguity of what you're handling, a robot will affiliate an object with its RFID tag. It can then associate what you say with what it can detect from unambiguous sensing. Thereafter you can say I want to put this pallet over here and the robot will affiliate coordinates with that. A challenge is to make RFID tags smaller, cheaper and more powerful."

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