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30.04.2020

Augmenting Human Performance in the Warehouse with Robotics

Robotics & Workers, Human Augmentation Series – Part Two (5 part series)

Human Augmentation Part 2

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.

A collaborative approach to robotics is really about augmenting human performance. By enabling humans to operate with a robot in the warehouse, we are taking some task that the human would otherwise be performing and transitioning this task to the robot. Therefore, this acts as a tool for human augmentation because now the person can focus on other tasks and drive up the productivity and efficiency of the operation. 

A bit more specifically, the following types of robots are currently available to augment human performance in the warehouse.

Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMRs) 

These robots are used in tasks related to movement of materials in the warehouse. Movements such as pallet shuttling, picking processes, and put away and replenishment. Whether these AMRs are moving a rack to picking station; working in the aisle alongside human pickers; or picking up full pallets and taking them to the next location, they are all taking on previously manually executed tasks and improving the ability for humans in the process to do more.

Robotic Picking Arms

In some cases, robotic arms can be used in the picking processes with robotic arms designed for these processes. These robots combine vision systems, robotic arms, intelligence software, and gripping tools (end effectors) to autonomously handle the act of picking an item from a bin, tote, box, conveyor, and even a shelf. Again, by taking on this aspect of the task, human workers now don’t have to spend their time with this particular process and can focus on adding value in other ways.

Exoskeleton Suits 

This technology is more directly related with human augmentation. Exoskeleton technology has come a long way in recent years, to the point today that one company that makes robotic technology, Sarcos, brought to market a full body powered exoskeleton suit. Exoskeleton technology can enhance a workers strength, increase their stamina, and reduce the risk of strain and overexertion related injuries. Certain lifting tasks that used to require two people can now be done with one. Workers that typically subject to injury are able to significantly reduce this risk.

Security Robotics 

I am not talking about RoboCop. Mobile security robots exist to extend the ability of the human security officer. These robots offer a mobile vision-enabled tool to see more sensors that don’t exist in other types of security systems (e.g. radiation, thermal, air quality, etc.), and a digital element to security services. With these robots, security officers can accelerate the time to respond to an incident, and keep eyes up while they are in motion. In the warehouse, these devices can be used to scan people in, patrol the exterior and interior of the facility, and ultimately provide a robust tool that makes the security officer able to do more.

Industrial Inspection Robotics 

There are several robots in the market that are designed as mobile sensor platforms that can be used to inspect facilities. For example, inspecting the air ducts in a warehouse would traditionally be a manual effort that could take several days. With manually-controlled robotic tools designed to operate in tight spaces, a single human operator can control such a robot and accelerate and improve the inspections process. Not only do this style of robot enable a greater “reach” by a human operator, they also enhance the ability to inspect with digital-driven technologies. For example, if corrosion were to exist, a high-definition camera system equipped with sophisticated visualization software can see corrosion that would be too small for the human operator. Also, this type of technology increases the safety of human workers by removing them from hazardous environments and allowing robots to perform the task with the human remaining in a safe working location.

Changing Our Mindset for Robotics

When we think about human augmentation, the obvious thought is robotic technologies that attach to or are worn by a human to enhance that person’s capabilities and skillset. However, if we look beyond these edge use cases, it is easy to see how other forms of robots augment human performance in a variety of ways. Yes, robotic technology exists that can make a human stronger and give that person greater endurance. But, we must not forget about the ways in which other forms of robotics can enhance human performance. 
The definition of augment is: to make something greater by adding to it. In the case of robotics, we are making humans better by introducing robots into the processes in which they are working. As organizations continue to look for ways to do more with less, human augmentation through the addition of robotics into workflows and operational processes will be a critical lever. 

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