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Visualizing warehouses: robots that can observe and manipulate work environments

Photo: Plus One Robotics

Though specialized robots have proven to be a viable alternative to human workers across several sectors within manufacturing since the 1960s, their presence in the supply chain has largely been non-existent until recently. This is because robots excel at work that is repetitive, which makes them a viable option on an assembly line, but dismal (to date) on the warehouse or distribution center floor.

In many ways, supply chains are defined by variability – a factor that robots useful on assembly lines cannot adapt to. Plus One Robotics, a San Antonio-based 3D-vision and automation startup, is using its technology to equip robots with scene perception.

“In supply chains, it is not about repetition but rather about variability. Industrial robots are successful when there is repetitive work – like in the automotive industry, because it is about building three million cars, in say, a four-year period,” said Erik Nieves, the co-founder and CEO of Plus One Robotics.

“Unfortunately in a supply chain, I can’t tell you what the conveyor is going to send to the robot next. I can’t tell you what the robots are going to handle in an hour, let alone in a week or a year. This is why you would need to close the loop with perception – something that you don’t have to do with robots deployed in the automotive industry,” he continued.

Within warehousing/distribution, Nieves outlined the need to recognize the different working classes to perceive what could be done to lessen the burden. “The first one is the mobility class. They are the people who are driving forklifts, pushing carts and moving dollies. The second one is the manipulation class, who have things in their hand and handle stuff like pulling items from the shelf or putting boxes on trucks,” he said. “Mobility and manipulation are the two types of operations happening under the roofs of most warehouses or distribution centers. And by observing the industry, it is also pretty clear that there are more people in the manipulation class than in the mobility class.”

Nieves asserted that robotic solutions to the labor problem in warehousing/distribution can only be applied by addressing one of these two classes. That said, warehousing has witnessed a great deal of recent activity in the mobility part of the equation, with the likes of Geek+, Fetch Robotics and 6 River Systems. Nieves explained that Plus One Robotics is different; it works on tackling the manipulation niche by applying 3D vision to industrial robots.

PickOne, Plus One’s proprietary solution to the perception problem, identifies pick points of parcels within a cluttered pile and sends signals of their exact location to the robot. This enables the robot to pick and place each parcel onto an induction conveyor, helping expedite warehousing sorting operations

Nieves explained that perception systems would play a vital role in the future of warehousing, as consumer expectations for faster delivery and the rise of ecommerce compound the issue of labor shortage in supply chains.

Before venturing out with Plus One Robotics, Nieves had been the head of technology development at Yaskawa Robotics, one of the largest industrial robot manufacturers in the world. There his team was charged with defining a new vertical for Yaskawa to expand into, as the industrial robotics industry traditionally banked heavily on the automotive industry for its survival.

Nieves had zeroed in on two possible markets – the electronics assembly industry and the supply chain vertical. “In some ways, I would say that the electronics industry is a much better fit for industrial robotics, because you are building millions of the same thing. But the problem is, I could spend years developing the right technology to apply industrial robotics to in that sector and enjoy none of it in North America, because I would be building technology that is going to Asia. This [North America] is where the supply chain industry falls perfectly in line,” he said.

Also, the traditional assembly line robots (essentially industrial arms) are not built to work on supply chains. Supply chains require robots to have what Plus One Robotics has given them – perception systems, the ability to move around and also to “pick” things (as in pick and pack). Nieves understood early on that no single company had created a robot to handle all of those functions with accuracy, and he co-founded Plus One Robotics with his two partners to tackle the overall problem one piece at a time.

However, even in the midst of such exciting technology, Nieves is certain that people should remain at the top of the governing pyramid. “Humans are inherently superior to robots in adapting to the variability in front of them. What we are looking to do is to seamlessly tie the human element into the robot’s control. The robots that you’ve deployed in your distribution center would become so much more effective and reliable if you can add just one human into the control loop. The ‘Plus One’ is you,” he said.