Robots are getting great at picking things up but not yet so great at putting them down…

My role involves helping clients sort through emerging technology applied to the supply chain space. A lot of my work these days is focused on robots. While robots from companies like Invia, Vecna, Locus and Grey Orange tend to grab a lot of the centre stage in distribution, I am really focusing more this year on the articulated arms sold by companies like Soft Robotics, Right-hand Robotics, and Ambidextrous.

The evolution of this category is happening fast. I think their viability is also increasing even faster than the mobile robots. While the last 3 years has been focused primarily on “picking things up” in unstructured environments with little knowledge of the product, I believe that most everybody can do this today to some degree, and they can achieve rates equal to if not faster than a human. The battle now is over “putting things down”.

This might seem strange, but if you watch the robots at tradeshows and in most distribution demonstrations they meticulously pick things up and then swing over a carton and “bomb” the order carton or bag by simply releasing the item. “Pick & Bomb” is typical today, and it works for many ecommerce operations -where the average order quantity is 1.3 units per order. Because there is a lot of extra space in the order container relative to the item(s), item placement doesn’t matter for these sorts of orders.

But if you are one of those ecommerce companies that has a bunch of items on every order (home delivery of groceries, plants, low cost merchandise) or you are a wholesaler or retailer who is trying to replenish retail stores, you have to place the products into the carton “just right” or they wont fit. Keep in mind every order is different and the robot must do this fast because humans are quick at it. Some in the robot world are calling this the “Tetris Problem” modelled after the game.

This same problem exists in case picking operations where robots are trying to build mixed SKU pallets. (Note: It might be even harder in that environment) Robots aren’t quite ready for this either, but the roboticists are hard at work sharpening their swords. I feel comfortable that in the coming quarters they will slice through that limitation as they have the others. You may yet see a breakthrough by Christmas or early next year.

Steve Mulaik


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