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Internet of Things October 2022 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Rob Edmonds

Logistics Robots

By Mark Smith
Smith is an independent consultant specializing in digital and connected technologies.

Overview

The Internet of Things underpins networks of logistics robots, which are seeing increasing deployment by companies such as Amazon.com. Facing labor shortages and surging demand for warehousing and distribution, the wider sector is now beginning to deploy even more robots, and the IoT industry is set to grow as well to support this rapid new expansion.

Description

Logistics firm Geodis recently announced the deployment of 1,000 autonomous mobile robots at its warehouse sites around the world. Locus Robotics designed the robots to work alongside human staff to streamline operations. This deployment represents one of the industry's largest mobile-robot deals to date, with the device rollout to occur over the next two years. DHL has also signed an agreement with Locus to introduce 2,000 robots at its facilities by the end of 2022.

Aircraft giant Airbus is also set to expand its use of robots at its Rochefort logistics facility in France. Plans to increase aircraft production, along with costs and labor shortages, have caused it to turn to robotics as a solution. The firm said it will deploy robotic solutions from Scallog to take over picking tasks and create an automated warehouse. The deployment will include two preparation stations, six Boby robots, and 160 shelves to take on 50% of picking activity at the Rochefort site. This will ramp up in 2023 to account eventually for 100% of preparations. Logistics company Blondel will oversee the project, and the company hopes to triple productivity, optimize storage by 30%, and reduce picking errors in warehouses.

Implications

The requirement for warehousing and distribution increased during the covid‑19 pandemic because of a surge in consumers' being forced to shop online—particularly for groceries. But staffing issues and the scale of demand left some operations unable to keep pace. The size of recent investments shows that companies are trying to respond to these challenges via robotic automation.

IoT technology is essential for adding intelligence and coordination across teams of robots. To be most useful, robots cannot operate in complex environments in isolation—at the very least, they require Wi‑Fi, cloud, or edge connectivity, or some combination of the technologies, for coordination. In addition, networked sensors (within robots and the wider warehouse environment) can make robots an integrated part of smart environment.

Some new robot designs could also accelerate the transition to lights-out IoT-driven warehouses (and factories) that look quite different from human-operated sites. Ocado already operates warehouses in which robots travel on grids of rails to perform packing operations. The company is now deploying a new generation of lighter-weight robots at some sites.

Overall, robots are becoming essential for logistics organizations that are dealing with increases in customer expectations and decreases in available staff. IoT technology has an important opportunity in adding networked intelligence to robots and making ideas of smart warehouses a reality.

Relevant Areas to Monitor

  • Networks and Wireless Communications

    For many robots, actions such as receiving instructions, uploading data, and accessing cloud-computing resources require wireless communications. Existing LTE and Wi‑Fi networks offer basic wireless communications, but the development of 5G ultrareliable low-latency communications could enable new operational capabilities for robots.

  • Industry 4.0

    Industry 4.0 leverages machines, parts, and services that exchange data and self-configure to support dynamic, agile, and efficient manufacturing processes. Stakeholders expect Industry 4.0 to revolutionize manufacturing and industrial practices to create self-sufficient systems, but challenges could limit progress.

Impact Scale

On a scale of low, medium, or high, the anticipated level of impact for this topic is: Medium.

Impact Timing

On a scale of now, 5, 10, or 15 years, the anticipated impact timing for this topic is: Now to 5 years.

Opportunities in the Following Industry Areas

  • Transportation/Logistics
  • Retail
  • AI/Automation/Software
  • Internet of Things
  • Robotics/Drones