Last week, SCDigest reported on a planned new highly automated grocery DC Walmart is planning to open in California in the fall of 2020. (See Walmart to Build New Highly Automated Grocery DC in California.)
That new Walmart DC will be its first to really leverage new age automation beyond miles of conveyors at its existing DCs, and will feature automated storage and retrieval systems and goods-to-picker technology.
But despite the heavy use of automation, Walmart says the new DC will still have hundreds of jobs, and that those job will be better, especially by reducing the amount of walking order pickers need to do every day compared with existing DC designs.
As we reported, details were scarce, but certainly the total amount of workers needed with the new design will be reduced, else how can the tens of millions in investment be justified? But it appears a humans will still play a key role in the Walmart DC’s operation.
A technology company in Japan has a different approach: build DCs run almost entirely by robots.
As reported this week by CNBC, a company called Mujin turn heads earlier this year when it showed off its transformation of a DC operated by Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com. The 40,000 square meter facility in Shanghai began full operations in June. The facility is equipped with 20 industrial robots that pick, transfer and pack packages using crates on conveyor belts, as well as camera systems and Mujin robot controllers. Other robots carted merchandise around to loading docks and trucks.
Human workers required: almost none.
Mujin is not a robot manufacturer. Instead, it’s building robot controllers and camera systems and integrating them with existing industrial robot arms. The controllers are the key to the solution: about the size of a briefcase, there is one for motion planning and one for vision. Together, they act as an operating system that the company can control the hardware from any robot manufacturer.
So, for example, if the need is for a robot “hand” to grasp a product, as in order picking, the controllers automatically can generate the required motions for robots, eliminating the traditional need to “teach” robots manually. The result, according to the company, is higher productivity for users.
Simply put, the technology – based on motion planning and computer vision – makes industrial robots capable of autonomous and intelligent action.
It’s not quite perfect – yet.
At a recent technology show in Tokyo, a large robot arm reached into a full-sized mockup of a shipping container and began unloading boxes from it. Set on a platform that moved back and forth, the robot was doing a job usually carried out by warehouse workers and forklift operators. The goal of Mujin is total automation.
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During that process, a robot accidentally damaged a box during the demo.
“Lifting heavy boxes is probably the most backbreaking task in warehouse logistics,” Mujin’s American co-founder and CTO, Rosen Diankov, told CNBC. “A lot of companies are looking for truck unloading systems, and I believe we’re the closest to commercialization.”
He added: “My goal is to automate warehouses in America and make a lot of success stories there. But will people value that, and are there enough people with expertise to do it? That’s why we started in Japan.”
Mujin’s plan is to move away from customization for every client and standardize a complete automation package.
“Unfortunately, just having a robot system work perfectly is not enough, and we need to have the equipment and system around the robot to finally allow it to contribute to the operations of the business,” said Diankov. “Once there are enough solid standardized components for warehouse automation, we can focus our energies to quickly deploy and perfect them.”
“In the US, robot technology is often undervalued and directly compared to the value of human workers,” Diankov added. “If you’re going to be competing with that from day one, maybe you have no room to grow quickly. In Japan they have a mindset that values robotics much more, even if it sometimes doesn’t make economic sense. They’re willing to jump into investments into robotics.”
Mujin’s technology is going to be piloted in DCs in Japan late this year or in early 2019.
This is certainly one way to solve what SCDigest editor Dan Gilmore last week called The Great DC Labor Crisis.
Do you think we will see near humanless DCs any time soon? Good thing or not? Let us your thoughts at the Feedback section below or the link above to send an email.