2020: A Good Year for Robots

The political turmoil that buffeted global supply chains in 2019 will no doubt make headlines in 2020. And the uncertainty will probably be amplified by the fallout from impeachment proceedings and a Presidential election in the United States, as well as the ramifications of Brexit, tensions in the Persian Gulf, and possibly, some “unknown unknowns” that have yet to unfold.

While these dramas play out, behind the scenes, companies will continue to automate their supply chains in response to changing consumer buying habits. This quiet revolution is supported by advances in key technologies such as AI-infused robotics.

Fueled by online sales

Global sales of robots in 2018 were estimated at $16.5 billion by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). The number of shipments worldwide is expected to grow by 12% per year, on average, from 2020 to 2022.

In the logistics industry, robots are at the core of a worldwide movement to automate warehouses. Overall, the sales value of service robots for professional use increased by 32% to $9.2 billion in 2018, says the IFR, with logistics systems accounting for 41% of the units sold. It is estimated that the worldwide market for warehouse and logistics robots will quadruple by 2022.

The upsurge in e-commerce volumes drives much of this growth. For example, Cyber Monday in 2019 rang up some $9.4 billion in sales, bigger than any previous online shopping day in the US. In addition to the sheer volume of e-commerce orders that retailer warehouses now handle, these facilities must also support consumers’ unquenchable thirst for fast deliveries. Companies such as Alibaba and Amazon gain competitive advantage by encouraging consumers to expect faultless, express delivery services. We’ve reached a point where next-day delivery promises are slipping into the slow lane as same-day and even two-hour services become more common.

Technology improving

To meet these expectations, the warehouses that are vital cogs in e-commerce supply chains must pick orders and build loads faster and faster with unerring accuracy. In response, leading companies have invested billions of dollars in automation, spearheaded by the deployment of robots that make picking and packing more efficient and continuously track inventories using earthbound robots or flying ones.

In addition to being faster than human pickers, robots do not have to go to the bathroom or take breaks. And they don’t complain about poor working conditions or generate negative publicity when such complaints are made public (as Amazon is experiencing in Europe and the US).

While the rise of robots and the concomitant threat to jobs have caused much consternation, historically low unemployment rates in the US make it both more compelling and easier for companies to increase the pace of automation in facilities such as warehouses. The difficulty of finding workers pushed companies to automate, and it has become easier for people displaced by robots to find alternative employment.

Advances in the sophistication and abilities of robotics will increase automaton in warehouses over the next few years. Currently, humans are no match for robots when it comes to speed of operation and accuracy, but machines are still outclassed by human dexterity. Tell a warehouse robot to fetch an item, and it will perform supremely well; tell it to break an egg cleanly and you’ll end up with a mess. Hence, operations involving delicate objects still require human motor skills. But this is changing. Consider, for example, work underway at MIT to make robots more dexterous. MIT researchers are enabling robots to exercise fine control when manipulating items and to handle delicate objects such as wine glasses.

Automating ground delivery

The last mile – the final delivery to the end customer – is another area where technology is paving the way for the greater use of robots in supply chains. This change is already happening in countries such as the United Kingdom, where autonomous test robots have delivered pizzas. But we are only at the beginning of this journey. As an example, MIT engineers have developed a navigation system that enables robots to deliver parcels to a particular “front door” or “garage” rather than to an address delineated by coordinates on a map.

Larger, conventional delivery vehicles such as vans and trucks are also being automated, although complete autonomy in public spaces is many years away. Still, organizations including the US Postal Service are testing self-driving trucks and could deploy them on designated routes in the next few years. Meanwhile, innovations such as platooning – where a single driver controls several trucks in convoy formation – are driving the automation of freight vehicles.

Machines on the march

These are just a few examples of how the supply chains that are the foundation of global commerce are automating. In 2020 supply chains will have to steer through the twists and turns of a highly uncertain world, and the hand on the wheel is less likely to be human.