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March of the robots

By Toby Gooley | January 19, 2016 | 12:41 PM | Categories: Material Handling

I’m definitely not a techie. Just ask the long-suffering co-workers who rescue me when my laptop, smartphone, or various Google products (I’m talking about you, GVoice and Calendar) periodically become “uncooperative.” I grumble about technology all the time. But there is one aspect of technology that never fails to hold my attention and earn my admiration: robotics.

I know little about their inner workings or the nitty-gritty details of the technologies that make them do what they do. Still, they mesmerize me at trade shows, and I can barely tear myself away from watching them while on factory tours.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had several occasions to think about robotics and its impact on supply chains. On recent tours of the factories where The Raymond Corp. and Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing make their forklifts, for example, robotic welders and laser cutters were much in evidence. These machines were unaffected by the intense heat, searingly bright light, and around-the-clock demand for perfect accuracy. And last month, my colleague David Maloney, chief editor of DC Velocity, and I toured a giant, highly automated pharmaceutical distribution facility in Japan. There we saw brawny robotic arms picking up individual packages of medicines and gently, precisely placing them on conveyor belts. At a demonstration center showcasing the latest products developed by Daifuku, the company we visited in Japan, we saw a robot that can pick up, deposit, and locate totes and boxes anywhere on a floor, without racks or storage structures; it can also remove individual items from a tote and place them on a conveyor or in another container.

Without these and the many other types of robots, manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution would be slower and production and shipment volumes diminished. More people would be required to carry out dangerous, exhausting, and mind-numbingly repetitive tasks. In conditions like those, people get hurt, quality inevitably becomes inconsistent, and the need for rework grows. Yet many people still view manufacturing and warehouse robots as competition for jobs.

Last month, Joseph F. Engleberger, a robotics pioneer who developed a robotic arm for use on assembly lines (way back in the 1960s!) that greatly accelerated production in many industries, passed away at the age of 90. Engleberger had an answer to those who charged that robots were taking good jobs away from people. In a 1997 New York Times interview, he asserted that the belief that robots stole jobs was “unjustified.” The robots, he pointed out, “take away subhuman jobs which we assign to people.” Based on what I’ve seen in factories and distribution centers, it’s hard to dispute that argument.

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