How Modular Robotics can Transform SCM and Logistics in 2020 and Beyond


Explore how modular robotics has the potential to bring transformative – and even disruptive – improvements in SCM and logistics, and the challenges to overcome to drive adoption by industry. Sudip Saha, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Future Market Insights -a firm that provides AI-powered, actionable business intelligence, shares his expert perspective.

Majority of industry professionals predicted Opens a new window that the supply chainOpens a new window will be a key driver of better customer service by the end of this year. Seeing the immense effect it has on business performance, it’s clear that streamlining logistics processes is more important than ever.

Technology is the ultimate aide on this journey – be it artificial intelligence, big data analytics, or even robotics. The introduction of smart warehouse Opens a new window robots is nothing new, but what if the same machines could carry out more diverse and multifaceted functions?

Welcome to the realm of modular robotics, in which robots are designed with parts that can be reconfigured to execute varied functions. The different modules bring flexibility, versatility, and easy configuration, showing why this segment is attracting demand from across industries, including logistics.

What are the benefits of modular robotics in logistics and how could it transform the industry?

Benefits of Modular Robotics for Warehousing and SCM

Modular robots are scalable, can learn by experience, and are interchangeably operative to diverse usage or different lines of production. To achieve that, they are programmed to change arms or grippers – in many cases, autonomously.

With multi-faceted features that come with a single modular robot, the segment offers significant resource savings and improved performance. Instead of having a different set of robots for each logistics process – be it sorting, picking, monitoring, barcode scanning, or even cleaning – companies can achieve more with a single set of modular robots.

Despite the high investment costs, modular roboticsOpens a new window have a promising ROI potential, especially when applied to dynamic environments with too many product variants. For example, parcels can contain goods that are hazardous, perishable, fragile, or chemical – and all these need to be handled in a certain way. Modular robots can immediately recognize their type and grip, carry, place, and monitor them accurately, resulting in a shorter time and greater efficiency.

Modular robotics can also help improve workplace safety. Warehouses Opens a new window tend to have a high injury rate: According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, in 2017 the recordable illness and injury in the warehousing sector were 5.1 out of every 100 workersOpens a new window . Modular robots, squeezing in narrow gangways and adapting their form to the needs of the environment, could help decrease this number.

However, this doesn’t mean that there should be no human interference. Beyond the management, human workers will continue to play a vital role in the case of a malfunction, emergency response, or any complex use.

Learn More: How Online Marketplaces are Shaping The Future of ProcurementOpens a new window

Exploring the Full Potential of Modular Robotics

In an era of fast technological advancement, it may seem that having a robot who can pick and place a number of items in different shapes, sort them, record its activity, scan the barcodes, and inform the inventory software will fast become the new norm. However, there are many other aspects in which modular robotics can be explored to its maximum potential.

The areas awaiting advancement include predictive learning, voice-directed follow-ups, the support of solid centralization of command, compatibility with numerous robotic grippers, and a clear shift from the guided to the autonomous space. Not only will these advancements make modular robots more capable, but human workers will be enabled to easily track order entries, sort the orders, and command effectively with voice.

The versatility of modular robotics also favors leveraging secondary features. For example, we are already seeing robots engaged in activities such as warehouse cleaningOpens a new window and maintenance – but for modular robots, this could be merely an additional functionality. With these machines sweeping even narrow gangways, logistics companies can add notable operational value.

Last but not least, the powerful features will directly encourage the volumetric expansion of warehouses. Modular robots Opens a new window can easily reach spots that humans can’t, inspiring effective space utilization. At the same time, increased warehouse efficiency could give companies the resources to set up a network of smaller, localized warehouses that have automatic notifications for replenishment, storage, and retrieval.

As consumers demand unprecedented fast deliveries, this could significantly boost speed. Smaller warehousesOpens a new window bring more efficiency and flexibility, especially for the local last-mile delivery stage. Companies around the world are now betting on localization, with small commercial vehicles often replenishing warehouses to cater to the developing retail chain. This brings more time efficiency, greater volume scaling, and automated inventory management – all together coming in a stronger, proactive supply chain networkOpens a new window – something that only 22%Opens a new window of companies have right now.

Learn More: Top 5 Supply Chain Challenges in 2020 and BeyondOpens a new window

Overcoming Challenges to Drive Adoption of Modular Robotics

The market for modular roboticsOpens a new window is predicted to experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18% by 2023, developing into a $10.76 billion industry. However, the sector’s expansion is now likely to be slowed down by the coronavirus crisisOpens a new window . Still, there’s great potential to catch up with the double-digit numbers in 2021. Here are a few ways to get started:

1. To guarantee a smooth progression, the sector will need to overcome various challenges. First, end-users should be well-trained about the capabilities of modular robots. Logistics companies shouldn’t deploy these machines without giving end-users the accurate know-how on how to make full use of them. Each application should, therefore, be accompanied by proper training and a wide organizational understanding of the benefits the technology brings upon optimal usage.

2. Companies – especially those of small and medium scale – will need to put robotization at the heart of their operations. For now, they tend to have different goals, including maintaining profitability or getting the talent pool right. There’s a common misconception that implementing modular robots involves high service costs and disparate complexities. However, as we welcome software agnostic platforms, where robots can learn by themselves, these beliefs are slowly disappearing.

In the case of companies that lean towards standard automation for the day-to-day processes, the switch to modular robotics could seem like a disproportionately large leap to take. But even with modular robots, step-by-step automation is possible. For example, companies can automate billing inspection and tagging, while incorporating sorting and packaging as the next functions. Instead of full-fledged automation, they can progressively and transparently automate their processes – all with high efficiency.

3. Modular robots still have to develop further. Most collaborative robot arms can operate with a payload of some 5-15 kilograms, so developers are looking to enhance battery power, offer auxiliary support, and experiment with magnetic couplings. Because without being connected, the battery capacity needs to be high.

Modular robotics is showing a promising outlook – especially if driven to its full potential and embraced by practitioners. While there is still a need for development enhancements and shifts in organizational priorities and processes, logistics will thrive by implementing it further. Ultimately, it could bring major changes including disruptions in warehouse networks and maximized space utilization.

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