Cobots Are Ready to Become Better Pals with Humans


Let’s talk about Chuck. He may be a newcomer to the supply chain, but he’s a welcome one.

Chuck is smart, eager to learn, and really knows his way around the warehouse. He’s agile and can carry heavy payloads with ease. He excels at putting-away, picking, counting, replenishing and sorting tasks, and he works very well with other employees. Chuck never, ever gets tired.

Chuck is a cobot, a collaborative robot developed by the American robotics firm 6 River Systems. His colleagues are kept busy at facilities run by ACT Fulfillment, DHL and XPO Logistics, among others. And Chuck, like the rest of the cobot cohort, has been designed to work alongside, rather that replace, human workers.

Unlike traditional robots, a collaborative robot can be programmed quickly and easily to pick up new tasks on site, which means it can be rapidly deployed. It takes a mere 15 minutes for an employee to get used to working alongside this machine.

A cobot such as Chuck leans on artificial intelligence, so it has the ability to get smarter and smarter. It already boasts practical intelligence that most employees don’t have because it’s hooked up to warehousing management systems and can act as a lead-me cart, taking pickers efficiently to orders and saving travel time.

The robotics firm reports that Chuck, which has largely been designed to support pick-to-cart processes, can pick around 200 units per hour – in contrast to the 90 units common for a human employee.

The cobots are coming

To date, cobot deployment has been limited. A little under 14,000 such machines were installed worldwide last year, a fraction of the industrial robots entering the workplace in the next few years, according to the International Federation of Robotics. But that number increased 23% over the previous year’s total, and the cobot market is poised to become increasingly mainstream over the next decade.

In fact, the segment will be worth more than $1 billion this year, rising at an estimated compound annual growth rate of 28.6 % by 2030 for a total of $24 billion, according to ABI ResearchOpens a new window .

Shopify certainly sees value in Chuck. The multi-merchant e-commerce company earlier this month announced it would acquire 6 River Systems in a $450 million dealOpens a new window . The plan is to part-robotize the supply chain by building on the company’s summer launch of the Shopify Fulfillment Network, a $1 billion, five-year initiative that will see seven new warehouses come onstream in 2018 alone.

With this infrastructure, Shopify is looking to bring corporate-level innovations to its hundreds of thousands of merchants. And many of them are small- and medium-sized retailers lacking access to leading-edge technologies to potentially deliver greater efficiency and more speed.

It could amount to the democratization of cobot usage.

Filling the labor gap

Fulfillment centers need these efficient mechanical helpers.

America continues to experience a widespread worker shortage due to changing demographics and immigration restrictions. Labor recruitment and retention is a major challenge for the sector when e-commerce is growing apace.

Being tardy with deliveries in a highly competitive market can have serious consequences. And given that cobots are able to complete those many monotonous rote warehouse tasks without complaint, that makes them a valuable addition to the workforce.

However, what about those companies that cannot now afford to add cobots to their fulfillment centers?

Robots-as-a-service may well get them over the line. RaaS is already with us because several robot makers now offer rent or lease options as alternatives to purchase, enabling clients to transform potentially heavy capital expenditures into ongoing operational expenditure.

Robots rentals also mean that users are not locked into a technology that may become outdated in just a few years’ time in a sector where rapid change is the order of the day.

Robot-rental contracts should also ensure that only the very latest cobots loaded with state-of-the-art software are working the aisles. That’s something someone as smart as Chuck would certainly appreciate.