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At Clearpath Robotics in Waterloo, you can hear the melodic beeps of OTTO – an unassuming-looking rectangular robot - that can spin, reverse, stop and start, and move around employees on the production floor.
But OTTO is not your garden variety industrial robot. More formally called an "autonomous material handling technology", it's been specifically designed to add some smart thinking to warehousing and distribution operations.
Robots in warehouses are nothing new. There are plenty of pick-and-pack systems that roam shelves to select items and drop them into waiting bins. Or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that have their own travelling lanes for carrying inventory. Massive gantry crane systems do their part in moving containers within storage areas.
However, advancements in optical sensing, artificial intelligence and sensor technologies are now turning these workhorse systems into something much more interactive and productive.
Beyond the novelty factor, the latest generation of intelligent warehouse robots offers considerable business value. They help reduce complexity, lower costs, are more accurate and help companies stay competitive. Then there's the fact that the logistics industry is facing an aging workforce, growing labour shortages and high turnover rates. And last but not least, they keep workers from injuring themselves on the job.
"The latest robotics innovations definitely have a strong future in commercial applications such as warehouse facilities", says Simon Drexler, Director of Industrial Solutions for Clearpath. "The market is driven to automate the world's dullest, dirtiest and deadliest jobs. The economic and people benefits are undeniable."
Clearpath's plans didn't start with warehouse robots. The company is the brainchild of a team of mechatronics students, who began work in 2010 on unmanned vehicles for research purposes. They soon realized that the same technology could easily move from the loftier realms of space research and mine mapping to address more common ground.
"We've had manipulation and assembly robots for years," Drexler says. "The problem with a lot of them is that they are fixed, not flexible; reactive, not proactive; and adoptive, not adaptive. In others words, plants have had to adapt to them versus the robots adapting to their surroundings."
OTTO's sophisticated inner workings allow it to do more than just follow designated lanes. In fact, it works in and around humans regardless of where they are. That's because these friendly warehouse companions can determine when they need to stop or move off a chosen path to make way for obstacles and people.
Drexler says a number of interconnected technologies have been instrumental in getting robotics technology to a more practical level today. They include the cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), mobile and big data. "For example, if cell phones didn't exist, we wouldn't have OTTO. The development of lithium ion batteries used in cell phones has been a game changer."
Clearpath is certainly not alone in this movement. Rick Trigati, president of Cimcorp Automation Ltd. in Grimsby, Ontario, says the industry is seeing a lot of well-rounded end-to-end solutions in warehousing, distribution and manufacturing. And there's no shortage of local resources to support the company's development work.
We're in a large automotive and steel based region. There are plenty of local sources for components and raw materials, and a lot of machine shops serving automotive that are very anxious to take on work. And we have an excellent high tech labour pool. We have at least seven local colleges and universities locally with engineering and technology programs.
All of that adds up to some compelling robotic innovation where you might not have expected it. As Drexler says, "Industrial 4.0 has come to the logistics world."
L'Oreal USA's largest shipping facility describes going from an entirely manual case picking operation to a fully automated one, and the advantages they've experienced.
April 11, 2016
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All figures are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise noted. Information is accurate at the time of publication.