The Future of Logistics & Robotics
The pandemic accelerated the trend of retail purchases being facilitated online as opposed to in-person transactions. Due to this large spike in consumer demand, logistics and supply chain networks were pushed to their limits in 2020 and continued growth in demand is expected. As companies look to increase their fulfillment speeds and eliminate bottlenecks in their processes, edge computing and 5G technology will help drive the adoption of robots in the logistics industry.
Edge computing and 5G technology will quickly drive the combination of the logistics and robotics industries. While that fusion between the two is happening already, these technologies will offer opportunities that current networks and infrastructure lack. Currently, machines, robots, and computers are connected to the cloud, pushing data upwards with a lag in data transfer that is a limitation of cloud computing. In a factory, autonomous robots (and in the public sphere, autonomous vehicles) cannot rely on cloud computing for safety and collision avoidance systems. The latency is too great and even delays of a few seconds could be catastrophic.
Edge computing offers powerful processing capacity at the point of consumption, whether it be on the robot, inside the vehicle, or on your phone. Combining edge processing with 5G provides the processing power to make split second decisions in real-time and the ability to push necessary data to the cloud at a frequency that provides faster communication than currently available.
Recently, Boston Dynamics unveiled their new robot, Stretch, designed to aid in depalletization, an application that has long been a focus on the robotics industry. So far, it looks to be a large improvement over the Handle Robot for a variety of reasons. First, Stretch is said to be more compatible in unstructured environments and take up the same relative space as a human. Second, Stretch balances safety with quicker reflexes that offer higher throughput. Finally, Stretch has a more industrial design that puts humans at ease, compared to the dystopian feel of the Handle Robot that many believed to resemble a hovering bird.
However, robots will need to continue improving their throughput capabilities to match the speed of humans in fulfillment centers while also not crossing a critical price threshold that has pushed adoption of robots out of reach for many companies in the past. This is the inflection point that ifm Product Manager, Garrett Place, explores in his recent essay (link) on the state of the robotics industry. As these barriers are overcome through continued innovation, the robotics and logistics industries will become further integrated by the increased availability and capability of foundational technologies.