Robotics-as-a-Service will make warehouse automation accessible

Warehouse automation is going to take off, and a new breed of robotic vendors will make the tools accessible.
26 March 2019

Robots on a car production line. Source: Gifer

Thanks to the global domination of e-commerce giant Amazon, the pressure is on for retailers and logistics partners to deliver goods from click-to-door in the fastest time possible.

As same day delivery increasingly becomes the norm, the need for flexible, efficient, and automated e-commerce fulfillment will lead to the estimated deployment of four million commercial robots across 50,000 warehouses by 2025. This vast uptake could see the prevalence of a new breed of Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) vendors.

That’s according to forecasts by ABI Research, a market-foresight advisory firm, and the figure represents a massive hike on the 4,000 robotic warehouses in operation last year.

While consumer demand will make supply-chain automation a necessity, prolific adoption will be driven by the increasing affordability of ‘infrastructure-light’ robots, offering a versatile alternative to fixed mechanical automation or manual operations.

“Flexibility and efficiency have become primary differentiators in the e-commerce fulfillment market as retailers and Third-Party Logistics (3PLs) struggle to cope with volatile product demand, seasonal peaks, and rising consumer delivery expectations,” said Nick Finill, Senior Analyst at ABI Research.

“Robots enable warehouses to scale operations up or down as required while offering major efficiency gains and mitigating inherent challenges associated with labor and staffing.”

The rise of RaaS

While heavier, mechanized automation commonly in use typically requires massive upfront investment and rigid physical infrastructure, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) will offer lower-cost, flexible alternatives that can be programmed to carry out a more diverse range of tasks.

Use of this machinery could also carry environmental benefits, allowing for the optimization of space in expensive warehouse facilities and reducing the need for new and costly greenfield fulfillment centers.

Catering for a seasonal and unpredictable e-commerce market, more and more RaaS vendors are likely to emerge— such as Fetch, Geek+ and Invia, already in existence— which can enable additional robots to be added to or removed from a fleet as operational demands require. They also allow easy and relatively rapid reconfiguration of entire workflows and operations if product lines or fundamental operational requirements change.

Thanks to impressive innovation in computer vision, artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning, and robotic mechanics, robots are also becoming increasingly adept at performing traditionally harder-to-automate tasks.

Economically-viable mobile manipulation robots from the likes of RightHand Robotics and Kindred Systems are now enabling a wider variety of individual items to be automatically picked and placed within a fulfillment operation.

By combining mobile robots, picking robots, and even autonomous forklifts, fulfillment centers can achieve greater levels of automation in an efficient and cost-effective way.

Meanwhile, with RaaS vendors able to offer flexible pricing options, robotics could be made available to a wider breadth of enterprise sizes. These models mean large upfront costs can be replaced by manageable operational costs, directly proportional to the consumption of technologies or services, improving the affordability of robotics systems among the mid-market, further driving adoption.

“By lowering the barriers to adoption for robots in the warehouse, vendors are disrupting the wider logistics value chain,” explained Finill.

“If advanced automation becomes possible for mid-size e-retailers, they will be able to fight back against the dominant players and also bring fulfillment operations back in-house, disrupting the relationship between retailers and 3PLs.”