The demand for e-commerce in the United States is on the rise, and the labor shortage is not going away. One way that logistics companies can mitigate these problems is through better automation of mobile bots. Many warehouses are now starting to consider full workflow automation.
Achieving this requires the integration of a group of specialized mobile robots that each do different things. But those seeking to go this route quickly run into a problem: Few vendors offer a full suite of robots that can do it all. Even if they claim to do it all, there is no single vendor that offers the best product for every specialty warehouse application. The ideal situation from the customer’s point of view is to select and combine the “best products” from different manufacturers. Finding a software platform that is sophisticated enough to do this effectively is quite a challenge.
One of the reasons it’s now time to consider integrating bots from multiple vendors is simple: mobile bots have matured. The market is currently brimming with cheap, capable, and reliable mobile robots. Consolidating products from multiple vendors is the next logical step.
Another reason logistics managers can now consider integrating bots from multiple vendors is that there has recently been a significant advance in necessary planning software technology. Multi-bot planning is a difficult problem to solve, but one that has been well studied by artificial intelligence (AI) scientists. Much of the related progress stems from the development of video games. In video games, you have multiple agents, and the challenge was trying to plan out their moves. This problem was solved 10-20 years ago, and now this technology has been adapted to real-life robots.
Working with bots requires consideration of minute details which are not a factor in games. Problems such as machinery crashes and how to manage acceleration. Much work has been done on this in the past five years, but it has mainly been applied to fleets of homogeneous bots (where all bots were of the same type and from the same vendor). The other big breakthrough, which is more recent, has been the successful application of multi-bot planning technology to a heterogeneous fleet of bots from different vendors. This is significantly more difficult, but it’s a now resolved problem.
Are customers ready for this?
The wave of adoption of heterogeneous multi-robot fleets has only just begun. Many mobile bot clients have not yet been automated extensively enough to address the difficult problems inherent in multi-bot planning. But the biggest users of mobile bots have tried to push things forward and implement workflow automation that combines the “best bots” from multiple vendors, and they’ve run into major problems trying to do so.
Logistics companies are great at managing humans, but trying to integrate diverse mobile robots into warehouse operations requires a special set of robotics expertise and tends to require a radical reimagining of workflows. Often, third-party advice is required, and mobile bot vendors may not be the most appropriate people to turn to: they are experts at making very good bots, but they have less experience integrating their bots with those of other vendors. Specialized mobile bot companies and integrators are better suited to this task.
Consider an automated production line. Nobody expects every machine and robot on the line to come from the same industrial automation vendor. A dedicated integrator comes in and combines the various products into a bespoke solution tailored to the needs of the end user. The highly automated warehouses of the near future will be no different. Mobile bot vendors will offer specialized solutions segmented and then integrators will combine them with other solutions to create automated workflows.
As users of large mobile bots break the problem of complete workflow automation, the efficiencies they realize will drive the entire market in this direction. Adoption of heterogeneous fleets of mobile robots will then occur rapidly. This will lead to a plethora of unique mobile bot solutions.
How to manage heterogeneous fleets
Some existing solutions work by connecting existing bot systems. This is done by acting as a higher layer between the robot control system and the warehouse management system. But it is difficult to achieve high levels of optimization in this way.
The best solution integrates the bots themselves: talking directly to the machines. You can think of this as building a unified bot control system that improves a fleet of heterogeneous bots, along with a warehouse control system that improves business workflows. Different robots use different orientation systems and speak different “languages”. One of the capabilities needed to enable seamless mixed fleet coordination, allowing bots to see, talk to each other and collaborate effectively, is the Universal Translator, an open platform that can coordinate with bots from any vendor.
The best logistics software solutions for mobile robots already offer this capability and the benefits are powerful.
Forward-thinking warehouse managers shouldn’t wait for their competitors to act first: now is the time to consider integrating large and diverse fleets of mobile bots into fully automated workflows.
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