From The Wall Street Journal:
Robot developers say they are close to a breakthrough—getting a machine to pick up a toy and put it in a box.
It is a simple task for a child, but for retailers it has been a big hurdle to automating one of the most labor-intensive aspects of e-commerce: grabbing items off shelves and packing them for shipping.
Several companies, including Saks Fifth Avenue owner Hudson’s BayCo. and Chinese online-retail giant JD.com Inc. have recently begun testing robotic “pickers” in their distribution centers. Some robotics companies say their machines can move gadgets, toys and consumer products 50% faster than human workers.
Retailers and logistics companies are counting on the new advances to help them keep pace with explosive growth in online sales and pressure to ship faster. U.S. e-commerce revenues hit $390 billion last year, nearly twice as much as in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales are rising even faster in China, India and other developing countries.
That is propelling a global hiring spree to find people to process those orders. U.S. warehouses added 262,000 jobs over the past five years, with nearly 950,000 people working in the sector, according to the Labor Department. Labor shortages are becoming more common, particularly during the holiday rush, and wages are climbing.
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Picking is the biggest labor cost in most e-commerce distribution centers, and among the least automated. Swapping in robots could cut the labor cost of fulfilling online orders by a fifth, said Marc Wulfraat, president of consulting firm MWPVL International Inc.
“When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of units, those numbers can be very significant,” he said. “It’s going to be a significant edge for whoever gets there first.”
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In RightHand Robotics’ Somerville, Mass., test facility, mechanical arms hunt around the clock through bins containing packages of baby wipes, jars of peanut butter and other products. Each attempt—successful or not—feeds into a database. The bigger that data set, the faster and more reliably the machines can pick, said Yaro Tenzer, the startup’s co-founder.
Hudson’s Bay is testing RightHand’s robots in a distribution center in Scarborough, Ontario.
“This thing could run 24 hours a day,” said Erik Caldwell, the retailer’s senior vice president of supply chain and digital operations, at a conference in May. “They don’t get sick; they don’t smoke.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)