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OM in the News: From Reindeer to Robots, Automation Set to Deliver This Holiday

October 9, 2018

Warehouse robots created by GreyOrange resemble shelf-moving systems developed by Kiva Systems, now part of Amazon, but add AI to the technology

Never mind the reindeer and elves. This year, robots are helping deliver the holidays. Gap is using automated arms and AI to sort the retailer’s clothing orders. Walmart is testing robots that roam store aisles to check inventory and tell workers where to find goods. And logistics providers are sending mobile step-stools mounted with shelves through fulfillment centers to help pull online orders.

With the busy holiday peak looming, retailers and logistics companies are ramping up automation as surging demand for labor outstrips the number of available workers, reports The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 4, 2018). Much of the technology is being used in distribution operations, where workers are increasingly working alongside machines built to keep goods moving at a rapid pace. The use of robotics and other automation technology in industrial operations is growing, although the vast majority of warehouse work remains largely manual. About 16% of organizations across several industries including warehousing are now using commercial service robots, and 21% have them in pilot programs. Online fulfillment centers—where companies like Amazon pick, pack and ship consumer orders—require 2-3 times as many workers as traditional warehouses.

XPO said this week it is deploying 5,000 autonomous mobile units from GreyOrange at logistics sites across North America and Europe. The robots, which resemble Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaners, sync up with XPO’s warehouse-management software to help workers fulfill up to 48 orders at a time. The robots more than doubled the speed at which orders are processed and help the company keep better tabs on inventory. Logistics-industry interest in robotics is spreading as the technology gets cheaper and easier to adopt. Collaborative robots for example, can work safely alongside humans and be added quickly to existing sites without disrupting operations.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. How are robots being used in retailers and warehouses?
  2. Why will robots not replace most warehouse workers?
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