Tools have been used for centuries to improve the way in which people perform tasks. That is one of the amazing things about humanity, our ability to create new tools that help us to do the things we do anyway, just better. As a species, we are never satisfied with the status quo, the drive to “build a better mouse trap” has, and continues to be, a driving force of innovation. This innate human instinct to continuously improve has brought us to the current state of the technological landscape, and more specifically, robotics.
Industrial robots have been in use across the manufacturing industry for decades. The use of robotics in this environment has enabled the automotive industry, for example, to build better vehicles more efficiently and more cost effectively. What occurred in this industry over several years, is that robots were actually viewed as a replacement of manual labor. Along the manufacturing line you would see a series of vehicles progress along the line, and at each point a robot would perform some task over and over again. In this example, the robot is largely fixed automation built for consistency and precision. Interestingly, the increased use of robotics and automation in this industry is actually correlated to an overall increase in employment in the industry. It’s just that the jobs and roles humans take on are shifting.
However, robots have moved well beyond the manufacturing line. Today, improvements in robotic technologies have extended the use and value delivered from robotic technology across new industries and new use cases. For example, surgical robotics exist that help deliver improved surgical outcomes, cleaning robots exist that take on floor cleaning tasks, and there are even robots that can scan shelves in grocery stores to improve on-shelf inventory management. But, warehousing is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the improvements and subsequent use of robotics in new areas.
One thing to keep in mind, relative to warehouse robotics, is that many of these robots are being built for human-machine collaboration. Collaborative robotics, or cobots, are robots designed to safely operate around humans and other equipment, and in many cases interact with humans or other equipment in the course of task execution.