Saturday December 15, 2018
08-06-18

Robots and AI can revolutionise logistics and delivery

Tenzer (left), Fung and Brantner with <p>panel moderator Sebastian Hofmann
Tenzer (left), Fung and Brantner with

panel moderator Sebastian Hofmann

Logistics and delivery is on the verge of a technological revolution as robots become capable of more tasks and artificial intelligence (AI) enables self-driving vehicles to make deliveries, according to speakers at this week’s Deliver conference in London.

The robotisation of fulfilment offers the potential to reduce warehousing costs significantly and make operations much more efficient, claimed participants in a panel discussion on this topic.

Frederik Brantner, CEO & co-founder of Zalando-backed German firm Magazino, whose mobile robots can pick shoebox-sized objects from warehouse shelves and transport them to a sorting point with 30-40% cost savings, pointed out that most European warehouses were designed for human workers.

But he predicted: “There will be a massive change in the coming years. Lots of companies are working on (automated) solutions, and the human (worker) shortage will be a driver.”

The price of robots will fall in the next few years while worker costs are continuing to rise, he pointed out. “The return on investment will improve as wages rise and robots get cheaper,” he forecast.

Moreover, robots could be hired out to companies on a temporary basis in the future just as warehouse workers are currently provided by labour agencies, he added. But Brantner played down fears of a large-scale job losses at warehouses and underlined: “There will still be lots of warehouse jobs for humans for a long time.”

Yaro Tenzer, co-founder of US firm RightHand Robotics, which develops a piece-picking robot arm, pointed out that many US warehouses are located on relatively cheap land with good transportation connections but not necessarily close to large centres of population. This factor alone made robots an interesting option for retailers, he said.

“E-commerce is putting pressure on people to innovate,” he declared. And he predicted: “Companies that do not invest (in robotics) will stay behind.”

Lit Fung, General Manager Overseas of Geek+, a Chinese manufacturer of picking, transporting and sorting robots, explained that his company wants to transform warehousing operations by offering low-cost ‘Robots As A Service’ (RAAS) to enable retailers to quickly introduce robots without large initial investments.

“We want to change the market with low prices,” he said. Geek+ has already installed 3,000 robots in Asia, including with launch customer Alibaba in Chinese warehouses, he added.

Meanwhile, three US West Coast-based start-ups claimed in a separate panel discussion that self-driving and electric vehicles “will massively change the pattern of delivery and transportation”.

Daniel Laury, CEO & Co-founder of udelv, whose self-driving delivery vehicle has started to make commercial deliveries for five businesses in the San Francisco Bay area, highlighted the potential of autonomous vehicles, driving at low speeds of up to 25 miles per hour (40 km/h), to reduce fatal road accidents.

He praised lawmakers in some 26 US states for working rapidly to allow self-driving vehicles, and noted that regulation is actually ahead of technology at present by legislating for about 80,000 – 100,000 autonomous vehicles to operate on US roads.

Dave Ferguson, President & Co-founder of Nuro, said his company hopes for its self-driving vehicles to be running “a real service with real customers” by the end of this year.

Both entrepreneurs emphasised the importance of ‘remote control’ of self-driving vehicles, allowing human operators to take technical control of the vehicles, for the foreseeable future.

Giordano Sordoni, COO & Co-founder of Thor Trucks, said the company’s electric trucks could now do up to 300 miles on one single battery charge but emphasised that Thor is targeted the local delivery market rather than long-distance trucking.

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