Robot technology may soon be packing, picking and moving goods – and solving a looming labor shortage in the logistics industry.

There’s a new challenge in store for the logistics and supply chain sector: as demand for deliveries rises, the work force in many markets is predicted to shrink and age. The solution? Robots may soon be standard in warehouses around the world.

E-commerce is growing at an extraordinary rate (an estimated 10 percent per year in the U.S., according to Forrester Research). Take the Chinese festival of Singles Day which has become one of the biggest online shopping days in the world. In 2014, sales in Alibaba’s sites Tmall and Taobao reached $9.3billion. In 2015, that figure rocketed to over $14.3billion. No wonder logistics firms are already running short of workers to pick, pack and move shipments.

In the future, the problem is likely to worsen: across the developed world, populations are slated to shrink and go gray, leaving the U.S. and other major economies with labor shortages in the millions of workers.

That’s a problem robots might be able to solve, according to a white paper by DHL. Robots that work with human colleagues could help fill the gap between the required work force and the available labor pool and make logistics jobs physically easier, so employees can work into their 60s and beyond.

Flexible and Low Cost

Thus far, the use of robots in the logistics arena has been limited by the complexity of the work, because logistics robots must be able to handle a wide array of different parts in an infinite number of combinations. Robotic technology is beginning to catch up with the demand for machines flexible and low cost enough to work in the logistics and distribution environment. Recent advances are the result of three factors: a flood of government research funding, venture capital and significant investments from tech giants like Amazon and Google.

The attention and investment is toppling a series of key barriers. To be useful in logistics, robots must have “eyes” to see an object, “hands” to pick it up, “feet” so that they can move the object to another place and “brains” that coordinate all of these tasks. Cell phones and video game systems like Microsoft’s Kinect have driven a tremendous drop in the costs of optical, tactile and motion sensors, giving robots “eyes.” To solve the problem of “arms,” several companies are working on robot arms that are less powerful or equipped with sensors to detect nearby humans, making them safer for people to work near or even with.

Technology similar to self-driving cars may soon power robots that can move safely in constantly shifting environments such as shipping warehouses or even perform “last-mile” deliveries straight to homes and offices, giving robots “feet.” And, finally, robot designers are working to harness the computing power of the cloud to move computationally demanding tasks such as image processing off board, reducing the need for robots loaded down with advanced processors.

Another field attracting attention is the possibility of using robotic technology to enhance human performance rather than just supplement it. Exoskeletons – powered suits that give people power, strength and endurance that they would not normally have – could help prevent injuries or make it possible for older workers to perform physically strenuous tasks with less effort.

Improved Service Levels

Several companies are working on mobile robots that would cruise warehouses picking items just like a person would. The concept is scalable: if you have a small distribution center you could add robots one at a time as you grow, for example. And by automating smaller warehouses, companies would provide improved service levels by locating distribution centers closer to customers.

A similar phenomenon could change the face of “last-mile” delivery. Not unlike drones, small robots could cruise city streets and sidewalks, bringing packages from warehouses or delivery hubs to customers autonomously.

When it comes to a fully-automated future, logistics professionals have a right to be skeptical. Robots have been hyped for decades, and for most of that time they’ve failed to deliver. But that’s poised to change. As the study’s authors wrote, “our children can’t picture a world without computers and it is likely that their children will feel the same way about robots.” Someday soon, warehouses and supply chains will see machines and humans working side by side to deliver goods faster and more economically.

– Andrew Curry for Delivered. The Global Logistics Magazine

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