Mobile Robots Grow Up


by Phil Britt, Robotics Business Review

Driven by market needs, particularly in warehousing and logistics, the market for mobile robots will be strong in 2019 and for several years thereafter, according to researchers.

“2018 was a year with a lot of pilot programs,” said John Santagate, IDC research director, commercial robots at International Data Corporation (IDC). “By the end of the year, we were talking to many of the major players and they were having new programs go live every week. The gravity of that situation can’t be overlooked.”

The novelty factor of mobile robots has worn off, agreed Matthew Cherewka, business development and solutions design manager at Vecna Robotics. “We’re starting to scale with companies rather than just running pilot programs. Some winners among users are starting to emerge.” There are several reasons warehousing, logistics and other companies are turning to mobile robots:

➤ Lack of human workers: Unemployment is running at historical lows. Even if unemployment rates were higher, some of the warehouse locations are too far from population centers to draw enough workers.

➤ Ability to work 24×7: Similar to the point above, the mobile robots can work around the clock. Although they need to be maintained, and there is the occasional need to take one offline for a repair, the robots don’t suffer from repetitive stress injuries, chat with co-workers, or take long lunch breaks.

➤ Short-term ROI: Depending on factors such as type of mobile robot, type of deployment, hours of operation, the robots pay for themselves in anywhere from six to 24 months, according to users and analysts.

➤ Flexibility: Mobile robots can be added or subtracted from a process relatively easily, whereas in traditional automation if a component of a conveyor system or an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) goes down, it stops the whole operation, Cherewka said. Even with automated guided vehicles (AGVs), if a vehicle goes down, the whole system backs up, since they are limited to fixed paths. If a mobile robot gets stuck or goes down, the rest of the system continues to operate and they can reroute around the problem area until the issue is resolved.

With Vecna’s solutions specifically, even if a robot goes through a dead zone or loses connection, that individual robot will continue to operate until the connection is re-established since it is both autonomous and safe enough to complete its current mission on its own, Cherewka said. In addition, if a robot cannot complete its task for some reason, the software will dynamically respond and reallocate tasks to account for this, making the robots themselves and the intelligence system that manages them significantly more robust than a system with a single point of failure.
Even in worst-case scenarios, mobile robot workflows have been designed specifically to be able to be supplemented with manual labor – such as flipping one of Vecna’s robots from autonomous to manual control. This provides companies with another layer of robustness that makes these automation solutions highly attractive over traditional automation


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