Can Cobots Help With the Supply Chain?

Written: January 6, 2022

The supply chain issue spooked a lot of industrial leaders. The pandemic looked like it would lead to a big reduction in demand. Recognizing this, companies cut inventory growth, laid off workers, and battened down the hatches. What actually happened was people stayed home and bought things online and caused increased demand. The supply chain wasn’t ready to fulfill the demand. Suppliers did a 180 and tried to bolster their inventories. They ran into several problems. Many employees who went home stayed at home. Many retired. Some were able to live on stimulus money from the Federal government.

The supply chain is complex. It is not optimized nor fully integrated, with many companies finding they were totally dependent on a single supplier. Things are beginning to improve. I am confident industrial engineers, researchers, and visionary industrial leaders will integrate, optimize, and reduce dependencies on single suppliers. Meanwhile, many problems need to be addressed. One of the many components of the supply chain is warehouses.

Amazon and others have deployed thousands of robots to pick and pack orders, but companies are still highly dependent on humans. One of the challenges is what is known as receiving. This is the process where a huge trailer backs up to the warehouse dock, and workers go into the trailer and lift boxes onto a conveyor belt to deliver the boxes to the inside of the warehouse. Many boxes are heavy, 50 pounds is typical. There are usually two workers in the trailer lifting the boxes and putting them onto the conveyor belt. Stretching to lift the boxes close to the ceiling or bending down to pick up boxes on the floor are tough on the skeleton. Lower back pain has been the leading cause of disability since 1990 and remains a significant global public health concern. The economic cost is in the billions.

Boston Dynamics has been working on robotic technology for years. Most of its robots, such as Atlas and Spot, which I have previously written about, have been humanoid and quadrupedal robots. Their newest robot, called Stretch, is quite different. It has a single massive arm and no legs. Stretch has a gripper covered with an array of suction cups and sensors. See the picture above. Stretch is omnidirectional and its mobile base can be placed inside the trailer after it has unloaded enough boxes to make room for itself. The robot can transfer 800 50-pound boxes per hour. Stretch can work non-stop for 16 hours before it needs its batteries charged. It takes no coffee breaks, sick days, or vacations.

The receiving part of the supply chain in the warehouse could potentially offer a number of benefits. A possible scenario would have four trailers to be unloaded with two men working in each one. With a Stretch robot in each one, there could be just one worker acting as the coordinator across all four trailers, stepping in when there is a problem. For example, for boxes packed tightly side by side, the robot may not be able to tell where one starts and the other stops. The human could step in and press a button to resolve the issue. In effect, the single worker is collaborating with the four robots. The robots could be called cobots. Humans and cobots working together could save eight sore backs.

If you are interested in robots, take a look at Robot Attitude: How Robots and Artificial Intelligence Will Make Our Lives Better where I describe other cobot examples.