Robots-as-a-Service in the Warehouse. Want PEAK with that?

Robots-as-a-Service in the Warehouse. Want PEAK with that?

As a teenager growing up building lake houses and piers, I never thought about robots but they certainly would have been useful. I had a side gig cutting grass for many of the folks in my Grandad’s neighborhood. A knock on a door, a 30-second negotiated rate, and someone could wake up on Saturday to either the summer scent of their fresh-cut yard, or the automated rumbling of a non-propelled lawn mower being pushed across their yard, with the occasional shotgun sound of a pebble that was being processed. While to me it was money for cutting grass, the actual value being delivered to my customers was completely outside my realm of understanding at that time. Implied and included in the grass-cutting service was 1) delivery of the lawn mower (capital equipment) and me to the cutting site, 2) fuel for the lawn mower, 3) expenses associated with getting the blades periodically sharpened so the grass wasn’t brown from a coarse cut, 4) standard consumable expenses like new mufflers, new blade guards, new oil and air filters, and new oil, and 5) a commitment to making sure the service was performed on-schedule (thanks to my Grandad’s help). Eventually, with a new weed-eater, a set of manual hedge clippers, and an edging device, the grass-cutting activity evolved to a yard maintenance service. It was a win-win situation where my clients were able to pay a single amount and get a delivered aesthetic enhancement, and the accompanying pride, to their homestead, without the need of ownership of all the components required to deliver the result. The client paid a few dollars for turn-key reliable execution of something they were not necessarily skilled to do, or “garage-enabled” (e.g. lawn equipment) to complete. It was a foundational service model.

Back then, the yard maintenance service was being delivered using equipment that was likely specified, designed, assembled, and shipped by a single company. Today, it’s possible that the design of the lawn mower was outsourced to a design house by the manufacturer of the device. If the lawn mower is an autonomous cutting device, driven by wireless communication to a logic controller, then it’s likely the electronics manufacturing was outsourced to a contract manufacturer, and the selling company now only worries about intellectual property and marketing. In either case, the distribution of the finished units have probably been managed by a third party logistics provider (3PL) before eventually making their way to an end customer. Undoubtedly there is software capability provided to the autonomous cutting device from a mobile phone or from the cloud via cellular or WiFi access – with possible replacement part notifications and service upgrades for mapping or other new features being included in the purchase plan for a subscription that communicates how effective the device is performing, based on analytics from the cloud interaction. And the cloud infrastructure is yet again a newly mainstream model for data and compute, likely a technical infrastructure service to the OEM. Service models come in all shapes and sizes, and are rapidly evolving, with new derivative models bifurcating old models each day.

Speed of Innovation

The drivers for the rapid evolution of service models were spawned with the discovery of the integrated circuit in 1958 by an electronics engineer at Texas Instruments named Jack Kilby. Following that discovery, around 1965, one of the founders of Intel, Gordon Moore, postulated that approximately every 2 years, the number of transistors on microchips would double. Moore’s Law as it has become known, suggested that computational progress would become significantly faster, smaller, and more efficient over time. The manifestation of this prediction can be seen with computing capabilities that have migrated away from central mainframes, to client-server computing, to desktops and laptops, and now to edge devices that are mobile, connected via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or any number of wired connections. An endpoint device held in one’s hand, now has more compute power than original space program launches utilized.

With this exponential increase in compute power, new software languages have been created with more extensive, more creative, and more user-friendly capabilities. With code that can be interpreted on the fly and can self update, software development methodologies have enabled and embraced rapid prototyping approaches, increasing the speed of enhanced feature deployment and development for varying platforms.

The torrential pace of innovation has forced most companies to face an introspective analysis yielding the best strategic approach of deploying both human capital and hard dollar equipment capital. Companies that have dismissed the need for candid introspection have likely seen dilutive impacts to income statements, as the cost of non-core innovation increases SG&A and developmental budgets with limited return prospects. New ideas about physical supply chain and back office optimization were adopted – creating a web of logical nodes and service offerings like 3PL outsourcing, Business Process Management, Business Process Outsourcing, Software-as-a-Service. Now, as geometries of packaged systems and hardware have shrunk while maintaining form and fit and function, device bundles have begun appearing in the service offerings, and likely as mobile and untethered IoT connected devices.

Robots in the Warehouse

Advancements in both software and hardware capabilities have created new opportunities for robotic automation in the supply chain as well, especially in the warehouse. Kait Peterson, senior director of product marketing at Locus Robotics (on Twitter @supplychainkait), believes that the access to hardware technologies like LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that measure distance, shape, and orientation of 3D objects with the use of lasers, as well as access to sensing technologies and the expanded availability of sensors have been important drivers to advanced robotic capabilities over the past 10 years. “LIDAR and sensing technologies, and being able to sense moving objects and respond quickly to those moving objects with intelligent actions, that consider safety and braking systems, have all advanced significantly. The hardware components are slimmer, easier to work with, and much more affordable, as well as more technologically advanced.” Peterson goes on to say that this evolution of hardware ultimately has enabled more scalable solutions compared to typical massive, fixed robotics that required huge investments.

The other side of the robotics evolution is the capacity for software to create better interaction of robots with the world around them. Says Peterson, “Over the past 10 years, we’ve really innovated by leaps and bounds with our software capabilities, incorporating advanced features like artificial intelligence and machine learning. We are using software to put our robots on a Locus network. You can add a bot to a network in a warehouse that has been mapped, and it can join the group and become immediately productive. Learning is like a hive mind. The robot joins the hive, and joins all the learnings that have been accumulated collectively by all the robots in the warehouse. So you don’t have to have each incremental robot learn the same thing over and over again. This is due to software gains.”

A New Way to Robot

Robots can be shipped to a site, unpacked and added to the fleet in minutes, and be productive immediately – that is just one of the benefits of the Locus Robotics Robots-as-a-Service model. Says Peterson, “The customer doesn’t purchase the robots. They rent the robots from us. Locus owns all the robots. We take full responsibility for their hardware, their software, all the maintenance, everything involved in the technology. So the customer has no burden to have to deal with a robot.” The service includes Locus Dashboards with real-time analytics tied to the customer and their sites directly. Locus’s Global Services Team also monitors the operation 24/7, and has access to all the dashboards and data being captured in each facility.

“We can do proactive maintenance or help identify what is going on when the customer says there are issues. Maybe they are seeing performance issues in an area – we have full visibility to that and can let the customer know. Maybe a forklift has run into a robot or some congestion has occurred in an aisle because something has fallen or is otherwise blocking the path of the robots. Analytic dashboards in the warehouse show on the warehouse map the location of the robots, and orders waiting to be picked. You can see individual associates’ performance as well through our gamification engine that shows who is leading the pack for the day.”

Instead of tying up capital for 20 years in a highly engineered, newly automated, capital intensive facility, in which a greenfield location may take 10, 15, or even 20 months before being operational, without steel or other raw building material delays, and the startup period with negative cash flow (depreciation, buildout, other), the Robot-as-a-Service model lowers the cost for entry into robotic driven automation with the subscription model. ROI can be measured in months, and can be based on maximizing throughput in existing warehouse facilities.

Want Peak with That?

In a typical arrangement, Locus Robotics begins with the standard RaaS agreement with flexibility available to temporarily add robot capacity to meet seasonal cycles of demand. Dialing up and down on the number of robots is part of the Peak plan for Locus Robotics. Peterson says, “Some of our customer high points are during the holiday season. So from about October to the end of December, a lot of our customers, particularly in the ecommerce and retail side, have massive spikes in ordering and they have to deliver to their customers. We can drop in another 100 bots or more into their warehouse, and they use the bots to increase warehouse throughput for that period of time. And when they are beyond the peak, they can keep as many as they want or they can send them back to Locus. And the easy part of that is that it is literally the robot arrives via shipment, you unbox it, you turn it on. You point it at what’s called a Locus Point, which is a QR code, that’s located through the warehouse so it knows where it is on the map. And it immediately joins the rest of the robots in the queues, in the processing, in the optimization, in the map. So there’s nothing else the customer has to do to increase the capacity of their robot fleet.”

It isn’t just flex demand that’s included in the Robots-as-a-Service model – its access to Locus people, and ongoing innovations in the software and hardware. You are getting an always updated robot solution platform and access to support resources with industry knowledge and proactive notifications for improved efficiency. Rather than commit to a technology maturity at a point in time, the customer commits to continued innovation via a service provided.

Warehouses Then and Cobots Today

Peterson says, “In the warehouse of 10 years ago, you had lots and lots of shelves with lots and lots of products. And if you wanted to pick more orders, or put more orders through the warehouse, you needed more carts and you needed more people. The thought process was, if I can put a bigger cart with the people they could pick more orders as they’re walking through the warehouse, but everything is about walking and pushing or pulling a cart. That creates tons of stress on the humans that are working. People are walking untold miles. They’re pushing big, heavy carts. They’re coming around corners, they’re crashing carts into each other, they’re getting ankle, hand, and back injuries. The ops guys in the warehouse are sitting in their tower thinking ‘oh, get a bigger cart, and that will be better.’” This is a recurring theme, and one that isn’t the safest to be around – one customer even was quoted as calling their carts “widowmakers.”

Locus Robotics autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can make decisions in the warehouse to solve problems without having to shut down warehouse operations when there is a hiccup – which is a stark contrast to autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) that have specific lanes in which to operate. Solving an AGV issue in the warehouse requires something that is similar to a “reboot”, a shutdown and restart of all the linked units. Not so with AMRs, which can be individually directed – if the unit doesn’t determine the best approach on its own. The AMRs work collaboratively with people, and are added into the warehouse workflow to replace carts, walking, and movement. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t to replace people. “People only walk a few miles in their section of the warehouse, “ Peterson says, “they’re putting the products on the robot, they aren’t carrying anything. The only lifting is from the rack to the robot, and they’re not getting into any accidents from running carts into people.”

This Cobot concept leads to better work environments in today’s warehouses. The Cobot approach for Locus Robotics is enabling humans to do their jobs more efficiently, more effectively, and more safely. Still, opportunities for further improvement in the model exist. “If you look at it, there is one problem that industry has been fixated on, and you will see a lot of startups around it, “ says Peterson. “It’s this idea of replicating human hand and arm movement, the human body, with an ability to sense and understand the amount of pressure to pick something up. For instance the amount we need to pick up an apple is different from a large pillow or small pen.”

Kait Peterson goes on to say, “This is something that we have not fully been able to replicate on a technology or hardware side. That’s an example of a problem being worked on, but nowhere near being operationalized in a way that can be used at mass scale, so you can see all the different ways of people thinking about robotic arms picking and how do you not crush the apple but you pick up the pen properly. There is so much value to human beings and how humans think about problems, and how we interact with the things around us. We can’t be fully replaced yet and it’s a while off in the future. All the technology being operationalized in warehouses today [for our customers] is enabling humans to extend our capability.”

Benefits Now and Looking Forward

Robots-as-a-Service is here to stay, and generating real returns. In the latest holiday season, Peterson ran an informal test with two online merchants. One of the merchants was using Locus robots in their warehouse, with Peak capacity – while the other merchant was not a Locus customer. The order which was placed with a customer using Locus robots in the warehouse was fulfilled in 45 minutes and arrived within 48 hours. The non-customer took over 10 days to be delivered.

Peterson believes that many factors may impact warehouse workflows in the future. For instance she recalled an innovation lab at one of her customers that was using virtualization for forklift driving- a forklift driver in Alabama could be driving an autonomous forklift located in a Texas warehouse for loading and unloading. She also believes creating an ecosystem of different automation providers to work together in providing solutions that fit unique customer needs is critical for the warehouse automation of tomorrow. “The one thing that we don’t have now in the warehouse automation space is the ability to go to one vendor for all of your solutions. You think about in the software space, you think about mega vendors like Microsoft and Oracle, you can go to one provider. That doesn’t exist in warehouse automation right now and it’s going to be a long time before it does.”

“The next big thing is something in the industry that we call interoperability, or the ability to put solutions together, to create a whole warehouse of automation,” says Peterson. And she is on to something here. In a recent study released by consulting giant Accenture, called “Value Untangled,” Accenture found that companies with high interoperability grew revenue 6x faster than their peers with low interoperability, and are set to unlock an additional five percentage points in annual revenue growth.

The future of the warehouse is the multi-faceted solution. It’s replacing manual forklifts. Peterson’s view is that these can be replaced by autonomous forklifts or pallet movers and incorporate autonomous put away, which means putting product from pallets into shelving units and transferring to the pallet storage of the warehouse. Picking will be human to robots or robotic arm to a robot – to go out to the packout station or the sortation wall. The sortation wall will be automated in a way that can handle massive amounts of orders and break them up into individual orders that need to go out to customers. Automated outbound flows include conveyor tops, big pallets, automatic wrap and load, all resulting in the fewest number of human touches possible.

Customize Your Order

While you could call today to place your order for warehouse robots, it is probably best to let Locus take a look at your operation to help you understand your bottlenecks. “We call it a COO or Concept Of Operations. We look at how the facility is running today, and what it would look like tomorrow if we were to put in Locus solutions. How will it run tomorrow and where are the improvements? And it’s very detailed. We do floor mapping. We make sure that the problems that are identified and what the solutions should be are very well understood.”

The solution architecture is tailored to meet the specific needs of the customer. IT integration risks have been mitigated with Locus Robotics’ comprehensive set of APIs to major WMS systems. Out of the box, there are minor tweaks to fit most customer systems. Time to value is compressed, and warehouse robots can be operational within a short period. And when new releases of robots occur, they can be swapped for existing units – aligning with many environmental goals.

Lastly, the focus on security of data is huge in today’s industry, and the Robots-as-a-Service model has the benefit of leveraging the provider’s resources. Locus Robotics has a Chief Security Officer dedicated to ensuring all the latest patches and updates are implemented and deployed so that customers’ data and operations are safe and secure.

The Robots-as-a-Service model provides faster returns on effort and committed time, periodic software updates, periodic hardware upgrades, and real money savings to start a warehouse automation journey. The only real question remaining – do you want Peak with that?

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William "Trey" Bell is a graduate of the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Aerospace Engineering. He has extensive experience in industry consulting, having worked with leading companies in a range of businesses including Aerospace and Defense, Medical Device, and High Tech. From product development to manufacturing, Trey has experience with methodologies, CAD/CAM, and software such as visualization and analytics software, ERP, system prognostics, and CRM. He has also worked as a CxO for multiple entities in different industries and has a personal consulting company. Trey runs a video streaming company called tr3dio and enjoys creating graphics and building new technology stacks.

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