Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Modex 2012: Robotic and smart technologies for handling material in factories and warehouses



In the emerging world of service robotics, many markets are opening to robotics that were once only handled by industrial robot manufacturers. Safely unmanned, or working alongside human workers, in a show focused on handling materials in the factory and also in the warehouse, Modex 2012, held in Atlanta (after 16 years in Cleveland), displayed the wares and solutions offered by 560 vendors and covered all aspects of picking, packing, handling and transporting material. Unlike industrial robots from the past, the newer robots displayed at Modex are able to adapt, easy to use and intuitive to operate.

After talking with many exhibitors, my impression is that there were more buyers than in previous years and those buyers appeared to be holistic in their approach to revamping their material handling in the factories and storage and pick and pack setup in their warehouses.

Their reasoning, and the underlying economic drivers for their renewed interest appeared to be:
  • a lack of qualified labor 
    • and higher labor costs
  • fear of the effects from the forthcoming retirements of baby-boomers
  • customized ordering via e-commerce requiring speedy and customized pick and pack
  • the availability of new sensors and lower-cost automation and robotic devices to augment workers and enhance their productivity
    • prices for these new devices and systems are holding steady or lowering
    • productivity enhancing concept systems from a few years ago are now proven and available
    • low interest rates make such investments even more affordable
  • mid-market companies can now afford material handling automation because
    • installation is easier and less costly
    • software and communication methods are more intuitive and easier to use
    • there is less need for costly integration assistance
    • they need to automate to stay price competitive with the larger companies
  • and... needed improvements have been put off because of the economic crisis and must now be renewed just to stay competitive
From left: Adept's Transporter, Intelligrated's bin controller, Kiva Systems' robot, Creform's AGV and Grenzebach's trolleys.
Although there were not a lot of robots or robotic components shown, their presence was implicit in all but the most utilitarian booths. For example, free-form vision-guided navigation (with collision avoidance) instead of tapes, ceiling signals and other path marking methods was openly praised and thought of as finally being of sufficient robustness, safety, speed and minimal programming, to finally become a realistic choice for material handling so many vendors were showing how they were adapting.

Vendors I thought of as particularly interesting at Modex included:
  • Intelligrated displayed their software integration system enabling every form of communication with the various automation devices, workers and robots involved in order fulfillment: voice, ViPR, regular barcodes, RFID and scanners, touch devices, tablets and pads, etc.
  • Kiva Systems novel robots, shelving and their Mobile-Robotic Fulfillment System were not only widely viewed at the Kiva booth but discussed or compared in many of the other booths as well. One interesting tidbit: Kiva gave an iPad to visitors to their booth so that they could place an order which, seconds later, they were able to pick from the movable shelves brought to the user. Very cool.
  • Egemin Automation showed how their warehouse management software system integrated with other manufacturers automation, conveyor devices, and palletizing equipment in addition to Egemin's own line of AGVs.
  • Daifuku Webb displayed their Smart-cart line of AGV tugs for pallets of materials, shelves and containers, and emphasized the flexibility and safety needs of an active warehousing center.
  • Adept, which is in the process of expanding its product line from solely industrial robots to products in the service sector as well, introduced their new mobile transporter/courier. They showed how their mobile devices were integrated into Swisslog's hospital and healthcare product line and also how their motion controller module is the navigation and collision avoidance system within RMT Robotics' ADAM line of mobility robots. A few other companies also offered similar vision/navigation/controller modules.
  • Frog AGV Systems, like many other AGV systems providers, has improved their navigation methods and software and is selling components and modules to OEMs. 
  • Systems Logistics, a European full-service provider, demonstrated an automatic picking station for mixed SKU skids. This feature - mixed SKU and inverse loading - was talked about all over the show as the "new" cost-saving way to load pallets and trucks for expeditious delivery. 
  • Seegrid Robotic emphasized the significant cost savings and productivity enhancements of using robotic forklifts and other tugs, tractors and trolleys. Their special value-added offering was a AGV learning system where the system's vision-guided navigation system learns the moves and layout from a human driver. Seegrid, like many others, is offering their navigation and vehicle control system as a module for other companies to incorporate into their existing systems. 
  • Creform had a line of modular mobile devices for moving lightweight carts, trays and platforms and their low lying robotic devices were similar to a few other vendors like Grenzebach's automatic trolleys and platforms and Transbotics' transportation robotics.
Brad Berger, editor-in-chief of SupplyChainBrain magazine, said that investing in automation for material handling is back after many years of being put off because of the economy. Buyers are creating smart warehouses where RF, voice, barcodes, tablets and software all work together seamlessly as tools in the bigger picture of moving, handling, picking and packing our materials and products.

As an aside, and with a focus on which companies will lead this new world of robotic augmentation of material handling and the workers involved, Adept Technology (NASDAQ:ADEP) appears to be moving toward bridging the gap between industrial robotics and the very real need for safer, more flexible, vision-enabled, mobile and easily trainable service robots. Today they announced a collaboration with Willow Garage to harness Willow Garage's ROS (robotic operating system) so that new methods can be used to control, simulate and program legacy industrial robots. Through acquisitions and business acumen and software changes, they seem to be successfully entering the service robotics sector adding those extra values - along with robustness, durability, connectivity and ease of integration that the industrial robotics manufacturers presently provide.

18,000-20,000 people attended Modex 2012 - 10% were international visitors. There were 560 exhibitors in the 170,000 sq ft space. Very impressive, very busy... and very tiring.