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Robotics Revolutionize Supply Chain and Logistics Systems, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

To a growing extent, the transportation industry now includes the use of robotics and artificial intelligence in terms of self-driving cars and trucks, and eventually may include a significant level of robotic delivery vehicles.  Robotics are already providing a high level of automation in ports and warehousing, while artificial intelligence is being applied widely to the supply chain.
Innovative firms are manufacturing robots that make cargo transport, fulfillment and delivery services cheaper and more efficient than ever before.  Take the Port of Los Angeles, for example, where terminal operator TraPac (www.trapac.com) provides autonomous carriers that double the speed of loading and unloading containers from cargo ships.  The carriers are four-stories tall and can move at speeds up to 18 miles per hour using advanced algorithms to plot routes that avoid collisions and save time.
In warehouses and distribution centers, Symbotic LLC (www.symbotic.com) uses autonomous robots that move untethered among storage racks to stack and retrieve packing cases, unlike earlier warehouse automation systems that use robots on tracks with fixed routes.  Symbotic’s robots afford customers denser storage since they can position products on any shelf in a warehouse and document locations for easy retrieval.  The company claims that its robots can cut distribution labor costs by 80%, and enable warehouses that can be 25% to 40% smaller than normal.
Vital tasks in distribution centers include 1) the efficient shelving or storing of inventory; 2) locating and picking items from inventory on an as-needed basis; 3) moving and sorting items once they have been picked; 4) packing items in appropriate boxes; and 4) grouping packed items in appropriate spots or pallets so that they will end up on the correct truck with the right carrier.  Robotics, automation and artificial intelligence are rapidly taking over many of these tasks, often in collaboration with human workers.  The net effect is a dramatic boosting of output while reducing operating costs.  Worker safety is also improved, since robots assist with much of the heavy lifting.
The latest robots used in logistics and distribution centers are somewhat like small self-driving cars.  They drive themselves from warehouse shelves to packing or shipping stations.  They can tow very heavy pallets or containers of goods and materials.  Managers can use data collected by the robots to improve on-site efficiency.  Mobile robots from Fetch Robotics, Inc. can map existing inventory in a warehouse by reading RFID tags and provide input to managers about items that need to be reordered.
Autonomous, mobile robots manufactured by firms such Singapore-based GreyOrange are being deployed by leading logistics centers such as those operated by XPO Logistics, Inc.  These advanced, small robots learn the locations of specific inventory items throughout a warehouse.  Using artificial intelligence, they can rapidly move inventory items to the correct shipping station, following the most efficient route to move from place to place within the facility.  Many other robot manufacturers are competing in this space and advancements in technology and capabilities are continuous.
The ability of robots to identify objects that are in front of them has advanced hand-in-hand with the ability of computers to conduct facial recognition.  This means that commercial robots can be trained, through machine learning, to identify and grasp the correct object for a given task, such as assembly or packing.  This technology is being tested on robots designed to be used for cooking in fast food restaurants.  A robot called SORT, manufactured by Kindred, Inc., utilizes advanced machine vision to determine how to best grasp an item of inventory and put it in a bin.
While many people worry that robots will take jobs away from humans, the opposite is occurring in e-commerce sales where business is booming.  While robots may be able to pack boxes, humans are necessary to process orders and fulfill additional warehouse functions.  The U.S. Department of Labor reported that warehouses added hundreds of thousands of jobs between 2012 and 2019, bringing total employment in the sector to 1.2 million.
As for personal deliveries, Starship Technologies (www.starship.xyz) has small, wheeled units in testing around the world.  Unlike drones, Starship Technologies’ robots stay firmly on the ground, maneuvering along sidewalks at speeds of up to four miles per hour with a range of two miles, making them applicable for the last mile delivery stage of consumer or business shipping.  When the units reach a delivery address, the addressee is alerted and uses a smartphone app to unlock the knee-high robot and remove the package(s) inside.  The robots can carry up to 40 pounds.  By early 2023, 4 million autonomous deliveries had been completed.  The company’s founders also started Skype.
In 2019, several U.S. grocery store chains owned by Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV of The Netherlands implemented technology from Relex Solutions to speed inventory replenishment and cut out-of-stocks as well as spoilage of fresh foods.  By 2022, the system was expected to be in operation in all of the Dutch firm’s U.S. stores, including the Food Lion, Hannaford, Stop & Shop, Giant Food and Giant/Martin’s chains.
In 2022, ConcertAI LLC raised $150 million to expand its medical data mining business.  Its goal is to assist physicians in matching cancer patients with clinical trials and potential medications.

SPOTLIGHT:  Micro-Fulfillment Centers
The Coronavirus brought sweeping changes to the retail sector—basically a rapid restructuring of the entire sector.  Retail foot traffic slumped while ecommerce soared for everything from groceries to household items to apparel.  These changes have significant implications for supply chain and distribution.  Since consumers frequently demand same-day (and often two-hour) availability of goods that they have ordered online, a superior level of rapid distribution may, in many cases, only be provided by creating “micro-fulfillment centers.”  These centers are small, local warehousing, packing and distribution areas that may be only a few hundred square meters in size.  They may be located in a special area within a retail store, or they may be free-standing facilities, often near the store.  Thus, the centers are typically within dense population areas.  (This is a sharp contrast to traditional fulfilment centers that typically are of massive size and often located a significant drive-time away from densely populated markets.)  Micro-Fulfillment works best when coupled with systems and equipment designed especially for this purpose, and specialized robotics and related software are a great tool for this strategy.


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