Piece-picking robotics has been a staple in industrial manufacturing for decades, primarily serving high-volume production lines. However, traditional robotics systems are limited in handling various items with varying shapes, sizes, and orientations. The landscape is rapidly changing, with recent advancements in sensors, vision systems, AI, and machine learning (ML) making general-purpose piece-picking robots a practical reality.
Breaking the traditional mold
Historically, robots in manufacturing were highly task-specific and restricted to controlled, structured environments. These robots lacked the adaptability required for picking items from a diverse selection. However, a new era is dawning as sensors, vision systems, and AI technologies come together to redefine the capabilities of robotics. This shift creates exciting opportunities for companies like Invar Group, an independent systems integrator, and others in the industry.
The power of vision and algorithms
Modern piece-picking robots can identify items from a mixed selection using various methods. Whether scanning a barcode, reading an RFID signal, or analyzing visual data, these robots can pinpoint the correct piece accurately. Advanced algorithms determine the item’s current and desired orientation, allowing the robot to manipulate it accordingly. Additionally, robots can adapt their handling techniques based on predefined parameters associated with each item, such as which tool to use or the appropriate force. Emerging ML and AI technologies enable robots to learn and adapt to novel items, optimizing their operations over time.
A game changer for labor-intensive industries
Piece picking has traditionally relied heavily on manual labor due to the challenges posed by irregularly shaped, fragile, or small items. These items may require pre-processing to ensure they are presented correctly to the robot, further complicating the automation process. However, as the cost and availability of human labor become increasingly problematic, businesses are turning to piece-picking robots. Manual pick rates can be slow, error-prone, and subject to illness and fatigue. Even a small error rate is unacceptable in industries demanding precision, such as direct-to-consumer pharmaceuticals or electronics. Automated systems, on the other hand, offer high accuracy and consistency.
Affordable automation for SMEs
One promising aspect of this technology is its growing affordability for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). As labor costs continue to rise, piece-picking robots offer a reasonable return on investment. This accessibility, combined with the scalability of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), enables SMEs to de-risk their operations and enhance efficiency.
Piece-picking robots can be deployed in various ways to suit the specific needs of a warehouse. They can be stationed in fixed locations, where goods are transported to them via conveyors, AMRs, or other means, and completed picks are similarly handled. Alternatively, they can roam the warehouse floor mounted on AMRs. Safety considerations play a crucial role, with some robots designed as collaborative robots (cobots) to work safely alongside humans, while others are fenced off through physical barriers or software safeguards.
Eliminating the need for precise item presentation
One significant advancement is the reduced reliance on precise item presentation. Traditional robots often required items to be positioned in specific orientations for tasks like barcode scanning or shape recognition. This required additional manual intervention or complex handling devices, adding complexity and cost to the automation process. However, much of this preparation can be eliminated with AI-powered vision systems, making piece-picking robots more versatile and cost-effective.
Collaboration drives progress
While piece-picking robots are becoming more dexterous, quick to learn, and adaptable, training them remains essential. Suppliers and integrators are actively working on effective training methods. Collaboration among stakeholders in this journey into robotic picking is crucial for continued progress.
The future of piece-picking robots is a promising one, with significant implications for the warehouse and logistics industry. Recent advancements in sensors, vision systems, AI, and machine learning have transformed traditional robots into adaptable, efficient, and cost-effective solutions. These robots are set to revolutionize labor-intensive industries, becoming more accessible to SMEs and offering a high return on investment. The flexible deployment options and reduced item presentation requirements make them a valuable asset for warehouses. Collaboration among industry players is key to unlocking the full potential of this technology. As we progress, independent integrators like Invar Group are crucial in bridging the gap between robots, controllers, and warehouse management systems, driving the evolution of piece-picking robotics.