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2000 – 2020: The age of self-guided robots

Date : 2 December 2021

Researcher : Yip Wai Fong


Over the last two decades, robotic advancements have aided in the shaping of the supply chain to take advantage of the rise of e-commerce. Businesses continue to take measured risks in the field of robotics, with varying results.

As personal computers became more affordable, powerful, and easier to use in the era of 2000, they became a helpful tool for the research and development of autonomous robots.

In the year 2001, Amigobot and the Pioneers, small robots capable of sensing, navigating, and avoiding obstacles in their environment, were marketed to consumers and companies alike for academic research and commercial mapping. These robots can be controlled from a personal computer, unlike earlier robots that required specially built computers to operate. The Amigobots and Pioneers were developed ActiveMedia, a company founded by Bill Kennedy and Jeanne Dietsch.

Autonomous robots led to the possibility of deploying them in large numbers to accomplish tasks or a mission. In 2003-2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded the USD 2.2 million Centibot Project, using Amigobot and Pioneers to test whether a group of 100 robots could survey a potentially dangerous area, build a map in real time, and seek out items without human supervision. Stanford University, SRI International, the University of Washington and ActiveMedia were also involved in the project.

While the defense agency was testing the prospect of robots cooperating, Kiva Systems was founded in 2003 and applied the concept to a real-world problem. Mick Mountz, one of the founders, had previously worked for the now-defunct online grocery store Webvan, where he identified major inefficiencies in the fulfilment center. He and the other founders, Peter Wurman and Raffaello D'Andrea (both professors of computer science and engineering, respectively), invented a robotic solution that used hundreds of robots to deliver orders to workers, reducing their walking time and distance.

Kiva Systems came with autonomous robots, shelving pods, navigation on the warehouse floor, software, and servers for the cost of US $5 million in 2003. The autonomous robots, soon to be known as Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), were coordinated using multi-agent systems and distributed intelligence, innovated by their founders to correctly identify inventory locations, optimize travel routes, reduce congestion at picking stations, and optimize the shelving pods storage space. It also uses barcodes, a technology that was already developed in the 1970s, as part of the system’s built-in pick-to-light and put-to-light functions, as well as for the markers on the floor for the robots to navigate themselves.

At first, prospects were deterred by the hefty price tag and the need for a complete revamp of the warehouse space, but from 2005 to 2007, Kiva Systems signed Staples, Walgreens, and Zappos as customers. In 2012, Kiva Systems was acquired by Amazon for US $775 million and later rebranded as Amazon Robotics, which makes and develops robotic solutions exclusively for Amazon.

Robotic ASRS

Around the same time, across the continent in Norway, Ingvar Hognaland of Hatteland Group, faced with the problem of a congested warehouse, conceived a grid-based ASRS system with robots on top to fetch, store, and deliver correct orders in totes to workers at the station. He developed a prototype for internal use in Hatteland in 2002 and, after witnessing the level of efficiency it achieved, rolled out his ASRS, named AutoStore, to its first local customer, Elotec, in 2005.

Autostore robots use an algorithm to fetch and store totes and communicate with one another over a radio network. It had been deployed in 35 countries by the time of its IPO in 2021, with customers including PUMA, Gucci, Lufthansa, and the FBI.

RFID and better data

In order to better identify and track its inventory, Walmart adopted the radio frequency identification (RFID) tag for cases and pallets, effectively requiring 100 of its suppliers to also adopt the technology in 2003. But due to high cost and low ROI, the requirement to use RFID was put on hold by 2009.

DHL had a better experience with RFID. One of DHL's most important products, the SmartSensor, began as an RFID pilot in 2006. The logistics firm collaborated with IBM, Intel, Philips, and SAP to create an RFID sensor tag that can track temperature fluctuations during the shipping of pharmaceuticals. The SmartSensors were first introduced in 2010, and by 2016, DHL announced that 62,000 SmartSensors had been deployed. In addition to RFID, the latest generation of SmartSensors is integrated with Near Field Communication (NFC), which allows data in tags to be read by a mobile phone.

As the cost of RFID has gone down since the days of Walmart’s initiative, interest in adoption has returned. When used in conjunction with AMRs to scan RFID tags, it presents an appealing automated solution. The daunting task of keeping track of a large amount of inventory could now be accomplished swiftly and with minimal manual labour. In recent years, using RFID along with AMRs has captured the attention of retailers that have their own e-commerce channels, such as Decathlon in 2019. Since 2019, Nike and Adidas have also used RFID tags on some of their inventory, but without the AMR deployment.

The right technology at the right time

Between 2000 and 2020, robotic advancements – particularly the AMRs and ASRS – pushed warehouse productivity to new heights, just in time to help e-commerce take off. RFID is also being recognised as a critical component for enabling an Internet-of-Things (IoT) environment. RFID is being utilised to track things further along the supply chain, such as from the warehouse to retailers, as soon as its cost becomes acceptable. The technologies mentioned above has helped improving supply chain's most pressing issues, such as warehouse space optimization, labour efficiency, and inventory tracking.

In the next report, we will be looking into the impact Covid-19 on supply chain and robotics adoption.

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