Autonomous vehicles take test drives around distribution centers

Discussion
Source: The Raymond Corporation
Apr 15, 2019
Ron Margulis

The largest materials handling conference in North America, ProMat, is held every other year in Chicago. At the last show in 2017, there was only one company talking about autonomous forklifts, and they didn’t have a real demo. This year, no less than 20 vendors were hyping autonomous lift trucks and every one of the leading manufacturers presented fully automated product put-away and retrieval demos. And then there were the robots …

While most of the business use cases for robots were on the co-located Automate 2019 show floor and focused on manufacturing, there were dozens of companies on the ProMat side showing robots that did everything from sweeping the floor to scanning pallet positions in racks. In fact, automation at distribution centers and along the complete supply chain is nearing a tipping point, according to the 2019 MHI Annual Industry Report, which predicts a 95 percent increase in projected spending this year over last.

The MHI survey of 1,052 supply chain professionals found that companies are planning significant investments in technology and automation this year:

  • Fifty-seven percent are planning investments in new technology that will total more than $1 million over the next two years (up 10 percent over last year’s survey);
  • Thirty-four percent are planning to spend more than $5 million; and,
  • Twenty-two percent are planning to spend more than $10 million.

The main reason for the increase in spending on automation is the tight labor market, according to several ProMat speakers. Another is that more companies want to make their supply chains digital in key areas, including innovation/technology, customer engagement and workplace environment.

“The future of material handling is the delivery of integrated solutions — the synergy of traditional material handling products and cutting-edge advances in automation technology. By efficiently and reliably performing a variety of repetitive transportation and pallet handling tasks, automated solutions can help reallocate labor to more value-added tasks with greater flexibility and for a lower total cost of ownership,” said Michael Field, CEO of The Raymond Corporation, a forklift manufacturer.

Speakers at ProMat supported Mr. Field’s view, adding that logistics and transportation companies and vendors are closely watching the experience distributors and others have with their autonomous vehicles, considering the closed environment of the warehouse a good test for potential broader (cars, vans and trucks) use on the nation’s highways.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What technologies will have the biggest impact on the retail supply chain over the next five years? Do you see distribution centers as good testing grounds for autonomous vehicles, robots and other technology before being rolled out elsewhere?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
" I am not sure that using autonomous vehicles in a specialized environment lends any credence to their use on the open road."
"This is an ideal place to use robotics and autonomous vehicles. Much of what goes on in a warehouse is rote, mechanical and system driven."
"Autonomous vehicles in DCs are already making an impact, which has little to do with real-world driving on public streets. "

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7 Comments on "Autonomous vehicles take test drives around distribution centers"


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Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

There has been a lot of news in the last few years about over the road autonomous vehicles including trucks. However, that change in the supply chain is much further off than using them in a warehouse situation. For the reasons pointed out in the article, using this technology in a environment designed for its use is something that will impact the supply chain fairly quickly. It will reduce long-term cost and increase operational efficiency.

I am not sure that using autonomous vehicles in a specialized environment lends any credence to their use on the open road. Perhaps that day will come but it will not be in the next five years.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

Smart robotics, informed by machine learning, will bring efficiencies to the variability that exist in distribution center processes while relieving the tight labor pool. Leading examples include Amazon and the Kroger/Ocado partnership.

Increasing real-time processing power and even machine to machine and DC to DC machine learning will bring flexibility and efficiencies to retail and e-commerce distribution centers in ways that only manufacturing processes had previously enjoyed.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

Autonomous vehicles and robots are most conducive to manufacturing and warehouse environments – where companies can completely control the variables. Some companies are testing robots for servicing customers (product location and information), stocking shelves and sweeping floors; however, most of these have spotty results. The big variable is customers. Navigating crowded store aisles and potentially bumping into or startling customers is a risk.

With labor costs continuing to rise, automating warehouses is a perfect testing ground for autonomous vehicles and robots. Backrooms at large retail stores is the next testing environment. Automated kiosks have already made major inroads in quick service retail (QSR) where they are being deployed rapidly to replace counter help and associated labor costs. The cost benefit will drive the adoption.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

This is an ideal place to use robotics and autonomous vehicles. Much of what goes on in a warehouse is rote, mechanical and system driven. Adding another digital, so to speak, component is a perfect fit. Will this have any influence on autonomous vehicles on the open road? Not so much. For my 2 cents.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

This is a potentially smart use of autonomous vehicles. What we know from real world testing is that the open road (or crowded urban street) is far too complex for an autonomous vehicle to negotiate.

What strikes me is that all of the discussion should have started at a place like this — not on the open road. But this is the new tech approach: Sell something out of sci-fi to the general public which is impossible but creates hype. Then fall back onto the true limitations of the tech’s reality only after it’s clear to the world how wrong you were.

Just think of how many things have done this. IoT, Segway, Google Glass, Autonomous Vehicles, VR, 3-D TV, internet connected dishwashers (and fridges)…

It takes a powerful skepticism to find truth in today’s over-invested tech landscape. Not cynicism — but skeptical sight which demands answers to important questions and won’t jump on bandwagons.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

There is no question that automation will drive profitability for retailers in general. Specifically, autonomous vehicles in DCs are already making an impact, which has little to do with real-world driving on public streets. We are at least another 10 years away from completely autonomous vehicles becoming available to consumers for street use.

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust

Michael Field makes a very sensible summing up of the autonomous vehicle market in the warehouse environment. They are great if the tasks are simple repetitive and especially if they are in environments that are not conducive to human work such as freezer units. However, one vital aspect of an investment in this area is to ensure that the automation does not reduce flexibility. I have seen many automated warehouses that are simply not fit for purpose because they are too rigid and inflexible, especially in a retail environment where nothing is rigid.

If automation can efficiently replace human endeavor in as flexible a manner then this has to be a good thing, but make sure you know what you are getting into before committing to a large spend.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
" I am not sure that using autonomous vehicles in a specialized environment lends any credence to their use on the open road."
"This is an ideal place to use robotics and autonomous vehicles. Much of what goes on in a warehouse is rote, mechanical and system driven."
"Autonomous vehicles in DCs are already making an impact, which has little to do with real-world driving on public streets. "

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