Robotic Picking and Sorting Solutions

Debra Schug, Contributing Writer

The manufacturing industry is experiencing a labor shortage. A recent report released by advisory firm Deloitte estimated nearly 4.6 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled in the next decade. But, because there aren’t enough skilled workers available, over two million of those positions are expected to go unfilled.

With demand up and skilled labor becoming increasingly hard to find, many in manufacturing are turning to automation and robotics. Recent advances in end-of-arm tools are making it possible to bring robots to the supply chain and material handling industry, especially in bin picking.

This article will take a look at the new technology driving robotic picking solutions for distribution centers and warehouses, and how they are opening up new doors to many companies starting their automation journey.

Benefits of Robotics

As with other modes of automation, robots are designed to increase productivity and throughput in the workplace. Because they work efficiently, consistently and with great speed, the output is higher, especially when performing repeatable actions that need to be precise. However, where robots greatly differ from other types of automation is their flexibility and smaller footprint.

“Hard automation may require long lines of machines to control randomized product before being handled,” said Jessica Beltran, Senior Engineer for FANUC America Corporation. “This can take up lots of floor space. Robotic arms are flexible and can handle the variability, therefore utilizing less real estate than other solutions.”

This flexibility is enabled by combining robotic arms with machine vision and sensors, which allows them to handle different types of product on one production line, she said.

“Robots offer scalable solutions to your workplace. They will grow with you,” said Bruce Baring, Vice President of Tompkins Robotics. “All you need to do is redeploy them.”

With investing in rigid automated equipment, he said, companies need to spend money in the present to build for future business capacity needed in five to seven years. Robots, on the other hand, are easily scalable and allow a business to invest in what is required for current needs.

New Technology to Unlock Possibilities

Traditionally, robots have been employed in manufacturing plants to do repetitive and highly structured tasks that do not require much thinking, such as automotive and electronic assembly lines.

“Successful performance in automotive and manufacturing relied on the precision aspects of the pick and the manipulation, and the ability to repeat a small, predefined set of actions with absolute accuracy,” said Bryan Knott, Manager, Service Robotics for ABB, North America.

However, for industries needing more creative and flexible handling, such as food and beverage and supply chain and order fulfillment applications, implementing robotics has been more challenging.

“Conventional robotic solutions are based on hard linkages and, thus, unable to adapt to fragile or variable product,” said Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics. “This is why only 12% of non-automotive industries are automated by robots today. Picking a soft and variable object, like an apple, is an impossible task for a traditional, rigid gripper.”

However, new flexible gripping solutions are making it possible to have robots perform jobs that previously needed a human’s touch. For instance, Soft Robotics’ gripping system is composed of robotic actuators made from polymers that don’t require sensors or other electromechanical devices to operate.

“The computational power of the system is built into the gripper itself, a proprietary blend of materials with microfluidic channels that when actuated, mimic the grasping and gripping capabilities of the human hand,” he said.

Part of the challenge in e-commerce applications is for robots to handle different shapes and sizes, which is why OnRobot developed its flexible servo gripper. The design makes it possible to use the same gripper for different shapes, materials and/or weights.

“An update to OnRobot’s first edition, the RG2-FT now has built-in force/torque sensing, supporting work in piece detection and centering,” said Kristian Hulgard, General Manager of the Americas for OnRobot. “With inbuilt 6 axis force/torque sensing and proximity laser sensors at the fingertips, the RG2-FT is the first intelligent gripper on the market that can see and feel objects, thus ensuring faster deployment of collaborative applications and ultimately higher productivity.”

Additionally, when robots are tied to the warehouse management system (WMS), they can pick orders at a much higher rate of speed and accuracy.

“Vision systems allow the robot to move to identify and move to part positions with a bin, tote, case or on a pallet. Vision systems are trainable to identify multiple part shapes, which greatly increase the flexibility of the picking system,” said Dean Elkins, Segment Leader, Material Handling for Yaskawa Motoman. “Most often the picking sequence is driven by the WMS software.”

The Dawn of Cobots

Another area of robotics gaining more traction in the last few years is collaborative robots. Also known as “cobots,” they are flexible, safe and user-friendly robots that work closely with people in production environments. Because they are much smaller than traditional robots, such as palletizers, and more cost-effective, these types of robotics are especially designed for small- and medium-sized businesses looking to automate their operations.

“Cobots offer low upfront costs, fast return on investment, flexible implementation and easy programming for developers who are rapidly creating innovative new systems to optimize bin-picking and packaging,” said Joe Campbell, Senior Manager, Strategic Marketing & Application Development for Universal Robots.

Because cobots are designed to work safely beside humans, they do not need safety guarding in most applications. Also, unlike traditional robots that need to be programmed using 3D software models of the items to be handled, cobots can be more easily programmed via hand guiding.

“In the supply chain industry, robots must handle millions of different items,” Campbell said. “The challenge is to ‘teach’ robots to pick things they’ve never handled before, just as a person can from an unstructured environment such as a bin or tote.”

Additionally, cobots are smaller and can be easily moved around from task to task, or production line to production line. However, the weight of what the robotic arm can lift, also known as payload, must be taken into consideration.

“Any imaginable application that features a repeated task with a payload less than 22lbs (the payload of our largest, UR10 robot) could potentially benefit from cobots,” he said. “Cobots will appeal to any operation trying to reduce picking fulfillment and intralogistics costs reliably at scale, while expanding production quickly with minimal capital outlay.”

Future Advances in Robotics

For many years, robots were seen as too costly or too complicated, or both, for smaller operations to procure. But, as the price for some models (especially cobots) are coming down, so is the ease of programming.

“Collaborative robots with hand-guided programming greatly simplify robot programming,” said Yaskawa Motoman’s Elkins. “This, coupled with more intelligent, easy-to-program vision systems are allowing robots to be more easily implemented with less safety equipment (based on a risk assessment) in many cases.”

Also, with advances in artificial intelligence, robots are becoming smarter and learning from past performance.

“Much like a human learning by doing, AI and deep learning allows the system to remember challenges and continuously improve item recognition and identification of optimal picking vectors,” said ABB’s Knott. “In modern supply chain and order fulfillment applications, robotics will need to manage almost infinite variability to create order from chaos.”

And, the easier robots are to program, the less time and money companies need to spend on training operators to use them. WMHS