September 12, 2011
Column | basic training

Bot or not?

Whether you call them "robots" or automated productivity tools, they're on the march into the nation's DCs.

By Art van Bodegraven and Kenneth B. Ackerman

Ro, ro, ro your bot, gently down the stream? On second thought, maybe not. The "B" movies of our misspent youth gave us the idea that robots were mechanical persons, humanoids rather, that contained enough embedded intelligence to turn on—and destroy— their masters and creators.

The core concept actually originated with the Czech proto-science fiction writer Karel Capek and his 1921 play, "R.U.R.," which featured androids that could think for themselves and supplanted the human race. The word "robot" itself is based on a Czech word meaning "serf labor."

Later, the film "2001" by Stanley Kubrick reinforced the notion of latent evil with the malevolent computer HAL. Still later, George Lucas and "Star Wars" turned that perception on its ear, introducing the likeable, even loveable, C3PO and R2D2.

Definitions of "robot" and "robotics" vary widely. Some purists insist that robots resemble human beings and perform tasks normally undertaken by humans. Other pragmatists concede that a robot might sometimes resemble a human, but is essentially defined as being a reprogrammable machine, able to perform repetitive tasks with precision.

It's easy to get excited about the possibility of mechanical "people" with some level of circuitry that acts like intelligence. After all, if we can have robotic pets, can robotic playmates be far behind? Then, it's only a matter of time until automaton maids, cooks, handymen, and distribution center workers join the work force.

An anthropomorphic day may dawn at some future point, but today's workaday world is different. In fact, it's not easy for us to distinguish between productivity tools and "robots."

Latter stages of the industrial revolution
Many early machines were built to perform tasks better and faster than any person—or gang of persons—could possibly do. Think steam shovels, steel rolling mills, cranes, bench presses, and the like. But in those cas-es, human beings have to operate—guide, direct, start, and stop—the machines. On their own, the tools, howev-er complex, are merely so much industrial statuary.

We, collectively, became more aware of "robotics" in manufacturing, as machines were invented and in-stalled to perform specific, and traditionally human-executed, tasks, such as spot welding in automobile assem-bly. They worked (or were intended to work) quickly, flawlessly, and repeatedly, as directed by programmed—and reprogrammable—control systems. The human input was no longer continuous physical control, but one-time, or periodic, mental content.

As time passed, even a last bastion of the manufacturing arts, the steel rolling mill, began to operate itself, programmed with knowledge, practices, and processes extracted from the minds and psyches of the humans who had previously directly controlled them. Does that constitute "robotics"? We think it does, despite the enormity of scale involved.

A whirring sound is heard in the DC
In the supply chain arena, most of what we call robotics has been focused on movement, human movement being generally the most expensive component of distribution center costs. And the definitions get trickier.

So far, our robots and robotics don't look at all like actual people. And many productivity/movement tools can't be considered robotics.

Simple gravity-feed roller conveyor can save enormous amounts of expensive human labor toting, walking, and riding. But it has no intelligence of its own. Contrast that with motorized conveyors, sorters, and recircula-tion loops, driven and directed by complex warehouse control system (WCS) logic—programmed and repro-grammable. Robotics? However simplistic the execution might be, we think the answer is yes.

Then, there are carousels, which move products to people rather than requiring people to travel to the prod-ucts. These are clearly mere productivity aids, requiring an operator to activate them and keep them in motion. But AS/RS (automated storage and retrieval systems) mini-load installations that are controlled by WCS logic, and frequently interfaced with WCS operation of other technologies within the same overall system, are, in our book, robotic—and actually look and "feel" more robotic than conveyors might.

There may be a parallel in wheeled movement. Vehicles propelled by in-floor tow lines are (or, in truth, were, in times of old), no question, productivity aids. Advancing through wire-guided vehicles to laser-guided movement seems, to us, to take this application into the realm of robotics.

Aha!
The dawning realization is that robots and robotics haven't suddenly and miraculously appeared. They have quietly evolved from earlier applications of productivity, quality, and cost improvements. Frankly, we should be expecting continuing evolution and not be standing back waiting for mechanical butlers to greet us with a tall, cool one at the end of a hard day.

Current and emerging state(s)
In today's robotics, the evolution continues. Our work might not be as exciting as the employment of drones to replace human pilots and aircraft in far-off military operations.

But in the realm of bringing work to people, rather than making people travel to where the work is within the DC, advanced systems control location and movement of relatively small pods that both contain product and convey them to a human for pick/pack/ship activities. Think of a massive high-tech carousel that is directed by a control system, with little devices scurrying back and forth all over the facility. A Massachusetts company, Kiva Systems, is at the moment the best-known developer of this family of robotics.

There's more. Pittsburgh's Seegrid continues to expand the capabilities of its family of automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which includes robotic trucks. ThyssenKrupp Krause manufactures a parcel handling robot (Paketroboter) that unloads loose parcels of varying sizes from a truck to a conveyor.

Jervis B. Webb, now a part of Japan's Daifuku, pioneered driverless forklifts that could move pallets from the end of a production line to rack storage, bulk storage, or a loading staging area, occasionally even being able to drop loads into trailers. And at least one company, Belgium's Egemin, provides robotics to load trailers and intermodal containers.

Jungheinrich in Germany continues to develop driverless lift truck varieties and capabilities. Kollmorgen, a Swedish company, adapts existing lift truck fleets to be driverless, and Genco, the product life-cycle specialist, has married the Kollmorgen system with Sky-Trax guidance systems, which eliminates conventional guidance systems, including lasers, for robotic trucks.

Once a dream, now there are several mixed-case pallet building robotics, including some that are integrated with AS/RS installations, notably from Daifuku.

And next?
It should be clear that we've not yet reached Utopia—however Utopia might be defined in a world that is ex-periencing far from full employment. It should be equally clear that the development of increasingly capable and complex productivity tools will not stop and will probably, in our opinion, speed up.

With exponential increases in the power and value proposition of technology-enabled tools—robotics, if you will—the automation of supply chain and logistics tasks once the exclusive province of humans will march on.

On balance, this is a really good thing. We will be more productive—and more competitive. And the nasty, uncomfortable, and dangerous work will be done by machines.

On the flip side, the nature of jobs will continue to shift, and not all displaced workers will be able to keep pace. The education—and native intelligence—required for future DC operational work will escalate.

These developments will pose challenges for both managers and working associates, and the time to start thinking about long-term societal and individual implications is probably right now.

Art van Bodegraven, president of Van Bodegraven Associates, may be reached at (614) 893-9414. He blogs for DC Velocity at The Art of Art.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven

Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of The Ackerman Company, can be reached at (614) 488-3165.
More articles by Kenneth B. Ackerman

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