Chris Middleton looks at how industries such as warehousing and the supply chain are being automated, spurred on by the pandemic.

The warehouse robotics market is likely to be worth $4.6 billion globally this year, up from just over $4 billion last year, and will grow to $9.5 billion by 2026 – a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 15 percent. That’s according to a new report from 360i Research, which also examines the impact of Covid-19 on demand for these devices.

Warehouse robots – autonomous or automated machines that locate and move items swiftly within warehouses for distribution – have helped companies like Ocado compete with Amazon in getting groceries and other goods to customers as quickly as possible. 

Robots might include fixed, stationary articulated, gantry, and autonomous mobile machines, in industries such as consumer electronics, healthcare, packaging, and the automotive sector, as well as in mass-market retail and ecommerce.

These robots help satisfy consumers’ demand for low-friction services and both speed up and reduce the cost of critical but low-skill tasks in large facilities. 

As such, robots are part of a value chain that extends from shoppers clicking Buy on a mobile app to answering the door to the delivery driver. In time, the delivery of some packets may also be automated in the last mile of the process, where delays sometimes take place. 

Among the vendors cited in the research, titled Warehouse Robotics Market Research Report by Type, by Application, by Region – Global Forecast to 2026, Cumulative Impact of COVID-19, are ABB, Amazon, ATS Automation Tooling Systems, Bastian Solutions, Bluebotics, Daifuku, Dematic Group, FANUC UK, Fetch Robotics, Hitachi, Honeywell International, IAM Robotics, JBT, KNAPP, KUKA, Locus Robotics, Mobile Industrial Robots, Omron, Rockwell Automation, Siemens, Yaskawa Electric, Toshiba Machine Company, and Yamaha Motor.

The report considers the widespread changes in consumer behaviour, demand, purchasing patterns, and re-routing of supply chains that have taken place during the pandemic, all of which benefited companies that had already invested in automation.

British company Tharsus Group is among those to have achieved strong growth in 2020, according to Transform Industry’s own research. It increased revenue by 40 percent year on year during the crisis, from £58 million to £81 million, while its pre-tax profits almost doubled. 

Tharsus works with the likes of Ocado and delivery group DHL, along with Rolls Royce (aerospace) and BMW, to develop warehouse and other service robots for specific tasks and use cases.

“We’re generating a labour and space saving, so that’s a really simple ROI,” Tharsus CEO Brian Palmer told Transform Industry. “But we’re also generating a data flow that will create greater accuracy of supply and higher frequency of supply. So, there’s a lot of secondary benefits, which all add up.

“A hardware platform alone would probably give a marginal return on investment, but if you can improve the service offering of your customer, then suddenly you’ve completely changed the value equation.”

Meanwhile, as previously reported, Boston, Massachusetts based non-profit centre MassRobotics recently announced the release of what it claims is the world’s first open-source interoperability standards for autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

The MassRobotics Interoperability Standard is designed to enable robots from different vendors to collaborate in warehouses, factories, and distribution or fulfilment centres, where competing platforms can make safe cooperation difficult.

The standard will be roadtested at a FedEx warehouse in Tennessee later this year, where AMRs from Waypoint Robotics, Vecna Robotics, and others, will be operating in the same location.

According to figures from supply-chain market intelligence provider LogisticsIQ, the global AMR and Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) market – which includes other devices, such as cleaning robots and vehicles at airports or theme parks – will hit $14 billion by 2026, with more than 270 vendors focused on the manufacturing and logistics spaces alone.

AMR adoption is forecast to experience a CAGR of roughly 45 percent between 2020 and 2026, spurred higher by the pandemic, said that report.

In the US, where aviation authorities are cautiously supporting research, Amazon and the likes of FedEx and UPS are experimenting with delivery drones that can fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). This will automate the last mile of the service for smaller packets, creating an end-to-end order and delivery system staffed by robots.

However, challenges remain in some aspects of the concept. These include the air traffic management challenge of thousands of unmanned rotorcraft being in the air over towns and cities, the potential noise, nuisance, and safety aspects of that, and the range of the drones themselves, which is thought to be about 15 miles before recharging.

A supporting infrastructure would have to be built and staffed to enable that vision to become reality, creating new markets, ventures, and jobs for humans. Real-time drone insurance services for swarm operators, such as UK startup Flock, already exist.