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Forward Thinking

Robots will collaborate with warehouse workers, not replace them, vendors say

Comment
Designers are looking to simplify robot operations by adding video-game-based interfaces.

Robot applications for logistics over the next decade will focus more on collaborating with human warehouse employees than replacing them outright, experts at a conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said Monday.

Industrial robot vendors are adding material handling capabilities to solve "low-hanging fruit" challenges of mobility, item location, and placement, said Jerome Dubois, co-founder at Waltham-Mass.-based warehouse robotics vendor 6 River Systems Inc. These products can boost warehouse worker productivity by two to three times its current pace without replacing the jobs they're doing, he said during a panel session called "Collaborative Robots at Work" at the TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics conference.

"Ultimately, we might have empty warehouses with people walking around outside without having to do that work," Dubois said. "But ... for a long, long time there will be plenty to do for robots in collaborating with human workers."

As robot vendors continue to build devices that work side by side with warehouse workers, they are continuing to improve software and hardware to create simpler designs, according to Dubois. "We have to simplify operations to make them easy to use for an operator who may or may not have a high school degree," Dubois said.

One source of worker inspiration is the type of consumer electronics device that features video game-based interfaces, such as the popular "Candy Crush" game played on smartphones. "The retention of skilled labor is incredibly expensive for these companies, so we need to make products that are easy to work with and that are fun to work with," Dubois said.

Creating warehouse robots with fun, familiar interfaces will help bring the technology to a wider market, fostering rising demand throughout the industry, the panelists agreed.

Another way that robot vendors can find more applications in the DC is to design robots that can operate in a warehouse without expensive retrofitting, said Clara Vu, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Veo Robotics Inc., a developer of collaborative robotic picking arms.

"Logistics has been less automated than manufacturing, because people have always thought that if you wanted to add automation, you had to automate your entire line," Vu said. "But now they are realizing that's not true—you can drop in robotics at a specific point in your line where it makes the most sense."

Ben Ames is Editor at Large and a Senior Editor at Supply Chain Quarterly’s sister publication, DC Velocity.

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