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Prepare for smart robot revolution

While industrial robots are well established, smart robots are being deployed across retail and logistics – but much of the tech is still nascent

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Retail is one of the sectors set to benefit the most from using smart robots to supplement human workers. Gartner’s report Emerging technologies: smart robot adoption generates diverse business value, published in April, found that deployments of smart robots in retail are able to demonstrate quantifiable results in 72% of use cases, which is the highest percentage among industries.

The main benefits include smart robot deployments across warehousing and logistic facilities, such as removing human involvement in heavy lifting and mile-walking, assisting with order picking and consolidation, and being able to sort packages by destination. The analyst firm forecast that by 2030, 80% of humans will engage with smart robots on a daily basis, due to smart robot advancements in intelligence, social interactions and human augmentation capabilities, a figure up from less than 10% today.

Because of the boom in e-commerce during the Covid-19 pandemic, retailers have needed to scale up their ability to fulfil customer orders rapidly. “Many logistics and retail businesses struggled to cope with demand due to the pandemic,” said Annette Jump, a senior director and analyst at Gartner. “Their online operations expanded massively and they need to process merchandise quicker.”

By integrating with people, smart robots “massively enhance what human operators can do”, said Jump. For Gartner, this has driven retailers and logistics firms to take a serious look at deploying robots to speed up certain parts of business operations. “There is a drive to make tedious parts disappear and create high-tech jobs in the process,” she added.

Ocado is one of the companies that has been pioneering robotics in retail and logistics. Its customer fulfilment centres use advanced robotics to pick grocery items for online deliveries. The company recently launched the 600 series, the latest version of its grocery-picking robot. The unique nature of the business means the company has developed this robotics technology in-house.

One of the main design goals of the new bot was that it needed to be lighter than the 500 series, which it would ultimately replace. Matt Whelan, head of engineering for the 600 series bot at Ocado, has a background in simulations and 3D printing. With Ocado’s small research team based on the campus of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Whelan applied agile software development principles to developing the hardware. Being on the campus gave him access to a pool of talented hardware and software engineers.

“We grew through referrals,” said Whelan. “We had lots of referrals.” The team is now split, with 35 in Stockholm and 35 in the UK.

Although the 600 series is fundamentally an evolution of the 500 series bot, Whelan said it is manufactured in a very different way. However, it has a lot in common with its predecessor from a firmware and communication system perspective. Given the pace with which additive manufacturing has matured, Whelan said Ocado has been able to combine 3D printing with the company’s software expertise.

“We can set up teams and move fast enough to exploit what is happening out there with additive manufacturing,” he said. “We developed the hardware like a software product, running sprint cycles and spinning a new generation of bots.”

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The team uses additive manufacturing to 3D print the parts needed to build 600 series bots. Whelan said the wholesale use of additive manufacturing for the 600 series “has unlocked lots of stuff for us, which we did not anticipate at the start” of the project.

The company runs a test site at the Stockholm facility, enabling the team to test out new ideas, and prototype and manufacture bot parts. The bot is a quarter of the weight of the previous model, but is being designed to have the same operational specification as its predecessor – with the potential to do new things too.

Among these is the ability to deploy the 600 series in smaller facilities with simplified grids for running the bots. Earlier this year, at the Ocado  Re:Imagined event, Tim Steiner, CEO and founder of Ocado, said the 600 series bot “changes everything”. Because the bot is lighter, Ocado now has the opportunity to build ultra-light grids that can be constructed in parallel in weeks, rather than months, he said.

The robot technology being developed and deployed at Ocado to streamline the delivery of online grocery orders is an example of how smart robots can enable logistics firms to optimise workflows.

According to Gartner, logistic robots are the most prominent and most mature of all smart robotic use cases. A study by the analyst found that half of all smart robot adoption has come from the logistics sector. Gartner’s report last month said such robots were deployed as autonomous mobile robots, handle grippers and carousel pickers. But Jump pointed out that in other sectors, smart robots are still at an experimental stage. 

While companies such as Ocado are uniquely placed to develop their own role-specific bots, technology leaders in other sectors will need to assess how to approach robotics. Some companies may be in a position to partner with a robotics startup to develop a bot that matches their business requirements, while others will need to work on a plan that may require deploying several smart robots for different roles that augment human workers.

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