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OM in the News: The Rise of the Collaborative Robot

August 7, 2017

Locus Robotics makes a type of collaborative robot that is designed to work with humans.

“In the battle of humans versus machine on the warehouse floor, some companies have found common ground,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 4, 2017). Instead of developing technology to completely replace manpower, the firms are designing robots meant to work alongside people. These robots, for example, can guide workers to items to be picked or can transport goods across a warehouse to be packed and shipped. Known as “collaborative” robots, they are small and relatively cheap—costing tens of thousands of dollars—compared with miles of conveyor belts and automation systems that run into the tens of millions. Many collaborative robots resemble motorized platforms fitted with shelves and touch screens. They use sensors to navigate past people and forklifts.

The new robots are designed with the majority of warehouses world-wide in mind, where orders continue to be fulfilled manually by people pushing carts up and down aisles. Robotics firms pitch them as a way to help people work faster and boost productivity during busy times, such as the holidays, when extra labor is harder to find. (Surging online sales and a tight labor market have made it more difficult and expensive to fill warehouse jobs.) For example, the robots can slash the number of steps workers take to fulfill an order. But they don’t grab objects off shelves, a task that is simple for humans but tricky to automate, though developers are getting close.

Such robots aren’t yet widespread compared to more-established technologies, like the shelf-moving robots developed in the mid-2000s by Kiva Systems, which Amazon bought in 2012. But collaborative robot’s lower price point could speed adoption.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Can robots completely take over warehouse fulfillment in the next few years?
  2. What is the difference between a collaborative robot and a Kiva robot?
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