How Robots and Humans are Teaming Up to Take on the World (We Mean, the Warehouse)

These Two Companies are on a Mission to Prove that Workers are Better Off with Intelligent Automation – and Zebra is Backing Their Efforts with New Venture Investments

Automation technologies in the warehouse
by Tony Palcheck
June 17, 2019

For decades now, there have been stories about how – sometime in the future – humans and robots form a symbiotic relationship that helps to accelerate innovation and improve life as we know it. I realize most of those stories were portrayed via sci-fi movies or television programs such as The Jetsons. But I’m here to tell you that intelligent automation is very real, and that we have officially reached that “time in the future” when we are ready to stand up a robot ecosystem – at least in the warehouse.

The timing couldn’t be better either. As my colleagues Tom Moore and Jim Hilton have reminded us recently in their blogs, those responsible for the warehousing and distribution of both consumer and commercial goods are facing higher order volumes, new expectations for same day shipping and labor constraints. That is actually one of the main reasons why robots should be viewed as friend versus foe.

Robots aren’t here to take over the world. Rather, they are the key to making our world better (and human workers more valuable).

Don’t believe me? There are two companies proving that statement to be true as you’re reading this: Plus One Robotics and Locus Robotics.

Though each company is focused on solving a different problem in the warehouse, both are working towards a common goal of making warehouse operations more efficient through human and robot collaboration. And, together, they have more than demonstrated that “intelligent automation” is a smart technology solution to a growing set of demand-driven problems that our customers face. That is why Zebra Ventures has invested in both Plus One Robotics and Locus Robotics over the past few months.

Why Zebra is Investing in Robotics – and Why Right Now

It is no secret that Zebra is aggressively developing solutions to help our warehouse customers modernize their operations. We’ve also been very vocal about how advanced technologies, including automation, can help manufacturers, logistics managers, distributors and others achieve their intelligent fulfillment ambitions in the warehouse, yard and beyond. Just last month, we shared examples of how the blockchain traceability API in our now publicly-available Internet of Things (IoT)-centric Savanna™ Data Services can improve tracking accuracy as goods flow in and out of the warehouse to increase accountability, ensure quality and more. Drew Ehlers spoke more in-depth in our “Ask the Expert” blog posts about the broader blockchain and IoT applications for warehouses that will aid with automation. Even more industry experts spoke about how achieving a more “automated” workflow is a modern necessity in the warehouse and beyond for a wide range of reasons. So, it is not that far of a stretch for Zebra to have an interest in robotics in the warehouse.

Robots Will Help You Respond Faster to Challenges and Growth Opportunities

Ready or not, the “now economy” is quickly shrinking lead times to hours. In some cases, fulfillment is occurring (or being forced to occur) within minutes. That rapid response burden is not going to ease either. If anything, it’s going to expand beyond the consumer retail sector. Manufacturers and retailers need a way to fulfill more orders with less labor and more easily respond to volume growth and seasonal peaks. The Zebra Ventures automation portfolio duo – Plus One and Locus – are focused on automating the picking, packing, shipping, receiving and sorting workflows within the warehouse in a way that will ultimately create an environment in which humans spend less time on mundane, repetitive tasks and more time on value-added actions.

For example:

Plus One Robotics has developed artificial intelligence (AI) software that enables robotic arms to know what item to pick, how to pick it and where to place it in logistics and e-commerce facilities:

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Locus Robotics has a collaborative, autonomous mobile robot solution that optimizes “each picking” workflows in e-commerce fulfillment warehouses:

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These synthesized human-robot relationships can help you to overcome labor shortages and productivity and efficiency challenges. They can also help to expedite fulfillment without compromising quality or creating new cost burdens.

Robots are Proving Just How Hard They Can Work to Make Jobs Easier on Human Workers

The videos you just watched do not depict far-out applications. Many are actively used today. For example, one major automotive manufacturer recently deployed Locus Robotics’ LocusBots™ in one of its U.S. parts warehouses to improve the picking process. The bots, which in this case are also connected to Zebra label printers, work autonomously alongside human workers in the warehouse, traveling from pick point to pick point and assisting them in their effort to fulfill auto part orders. When workers need to print a label, the bot and printer are right there. So are the labels, bags and other supplies stored on the bot. This robotics system greatly minimizes the amount of unproductive walking time and increases productivity 2x while decreasing drudgery and improving workplace quality.

Three use cases of printers and robots working together in a warehouse

In other cases, Plus One’s 3D vision and AI software enable robotic arms to perform mundane, repetitive tasks such as package singulation -- picking individual items from a cluttered pile of mixed parcels (boxes, padded mailers, etc.) at human speed, or packing – transferring the contents of an order tote to a cardboard carton for shipping.

A demonstration of the Plus One Pick One robotic in action

And this is just the beginning!

Imagine how much robots can help humans accomplish over the next five or 10 years simply by taking the busy work off their plates. I know the heads of our Chief Technology Office and business units are spinning with ideas on how we can advance computer vision, indoor navigation and collision avoidance capabilities.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

You Can and Should Put Robots to Work in Your Warehouses Today to Capture Your Edge

When we talk to customers about how they’re using robots/bots – or how they plan to do so – the conversation often shifts back to partial automation or augmentation solutions. Only a handful of companies are thinking about how to achieve full automation.  It still seems too futuristic or complicated. And that’s okay! Proceeding with a partial automation strategy is a reasonable and responsible way to advance your digital transformation.

Plus One and Locus both offer “robot as a service” models, which makes for simple and frictionless warehouse deployment and scaling. There is minimal disruption to existing infrastructure during the integration period and the robotics systems’ user interfaces are user friendly, so there is often minimal worker training required to on-board new bots. In other words, it may be easier than you think to begin to stand up a “warehouse robot ecosystem”.

Even better, intelligent automation solutions such as those that Zebra is investing in can easily integrate with the mobile, IoT, blockchain, AI, barcoding, RFID and printing technologies already in place in many warehouses, distribution centers and factories today. Zebra looks forward to working with our automation portfolio companies to help our customers solve the labor shortages and productivity issues that they face.

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Fun Fact: Did you know that Locus was named a top warehouse robotics company for the fourth consecutive year?

Editor’s Note: Learn more about how Zebra is embracing and advancing the next generation of automated warehouse workflow solutions.

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Tony Palcheck
Tony Palcheck is the Managing Director for Zebra Ventures. In this role, he is responsible for identifying and executing strategic, minority-equity investments in start-up firms to accelerate access to new technologies, future markets, and developing talent for all Zebra’s business units.