Robot solutions are being developed for almost every sector and application, with differing degrees of success and adoption. One area enjoying a surge in the implementation of robotics is logistics, and, with global supply chains under increasing pressure, this is likely to increase swiftly. 

In 2020, the global logistics robot market was valued at US$5.3bn and is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 16.4% between 2021 and 2028 to reach US$17.8bn.i So, what are the key tasks for robotics in logistics?

Fulfilment

Pick and place robot arms have been working alongside human colleagues for a number of years but limitations have meant that they’ve traditionally operated in cages, completing repetitive tasks which don’t require intelligence. New technology is changing that, and improved sensors and awareness software is allowing collaborative robots (cobots) out from behind bars to work in combination with people. Machine learning combined with vision tools and ingenious programming are teaching robots object definition and enhanced manipulation. This is being used to detect faulty items on production lines, to select particular objects for packing, and to rotate, turn and adjust items for more efficient boxing. 

Edge computing in logistics is vital as huge amounts of data must be processed and acted upon at the point of capture on the factory or warehouse floor. Steatite’s edge AI systems are designed for use in industrial environments where shock, vibration or extreme temperatures can be a problem, and will run continuously for many years. 

Our rugged, compact and power-efficient edge AI systems using Nvidia Jetson modules bring high performance and scalable edge AI solutions. Or, with both Windows and Linux support and compatibility with both x86 and ARM hosts, Intel Movidius is another flexible way to add AI capability to logistics.  

The recent acquisition of Active Silicon adds high-speed imaging to our portfolio. FireBird CoaXPress frame grabbers deliver data rates up to 50 Gbps making them ideal for image capture and processing on fast-moving production lines. The flexibility of coax cabling and standard connectors means these frame grabbers can be used to easily upgrade existing systems and bring high-performance inspection to robotic solutions.  

In the warehouse

Once goods have been packaged, they’re ready for sorting and storing prior to despatch. There are numerous robotic solutions aimed at making modern warehouses more efficient. This has become even more vital as e-commerce booms and labour shortages intensify. 

Pick-and-place robots are static which means they can be powered by a mains supply, don’t need to see where they’re going and generally are tasked with only one job. Robotic systems for warehouses have different challenges to contend with. 

We’re now quite familiar with seeing Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and even more advanced  Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) whizzing around warehouses. These are sometimes used at the fulfilment stage, or to move goods around storage facilities further on in the logistics lifecycle.  

Steatite has designed and built custom batteries for a manufacturer of logistic AGVs and can now make this power solution available to other customers. For this project, the need to operate within a chilled environment as well as maximising uptime were key requirements. Detailed knowledge of cell chemistry and battery management system requirements ensured that the Steatite team were able to eliminate any form of cell heating thus increasing the life of each battery charge cycle.   

Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) are also hugely important in logistics – these are the software platforms that coordinate stock levels, inventories and supply chain operations to maximise efficiency and simplicity across the supply and distribution network. Often requiring multiple third-party software integrations and reliable 24-7 operation, these systems tend to be very compute-heavy and must, by nature, be robust and low maintenance. They can be used to control static or mobile robotic systems and have become essential in digitised logistic operations. 

Steatite’s range of industrial computers are well suited to running such platforms, including AI-enabled edge solutionsfanless industrial PCs and larger rack-mount systems. Our computers are tested to rigorous environmental standards to withstand high levels of dust, humidity and extremes of temperature and many of them meet military, marine, rail and medical EMC standards, proving just how rugged they are. With multiple I/O features and a range of expansion interfaces, modules can be customised by our engineers to offer maximum flexibility. 

Locating and sending the right goods to the right place at the right time has been made easier by the use of barcodes and RFID tags – machine-readable, data-rich 1D or 2D labels. Many of our toughest tablets and panel PCs are available with optional RFID and barcode readers. These feature a range of CPU options, user replaceable components for simple field repairs and upgrades, and either P-CAP or resistive touchscreens. The required specifications for these should be carefully considered at an early stage in any systems integration project as they form a fundamental element of any automated warehouse system. 

Last mile delivery

While self-driving cars are a little way off still, autonomous delivery vehicles are becoming a reality. Royal Mail have been successfully trialling drone delivery to remote corners of the UK, transporting 100kg of mail on a 70 mile round trip.ii The advantage of these flying robots is that they can fly in foggy conditions and are less polluting than the established diesel-driven boat option. 

Operators require a reliable and scalable network to maintain communication between UAV and ground control. One such network is Wave Relay®, a self-healing Mobile Ad Hoc Networking (MANET) developed by Persistent Systems and supplied in the UK by Steatite. Using our Auto-Tracking Antenna System in conjunction with the high-performance MPU5 radio ensures constant communication from air to ground. 

A lot more down-to-earth, autonomous delivery robots are beginning to make it onto the streets, and several food and grocery companies have been putting them to use, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when the demand for contactless deliveries reached new heights. We’ve seen units the size of a medium dog roam pavements in the US right up to Chinese autonomous vans that use lidars, cameras and deep-learning algorithms to drive themselves, carrying up to 1000kg of cargo. 

However large or small, these robots need high-performance batteries that will charge quickly and discharge slowly to keep deliveries on the road around the clock. Steatite battery experts can assist with projects such as this, investigating the best cell chemistries and form factors for each product. Our custom battery design services and ongoing support offer flexible and reliable solutions for logistics robots and automated delivery vehicles. 

For delivery robots that need to navigate the real world, our Harrier autofocus-zoom cameras are a powerful and compact option. The range includes lightweight, high resolution cameras and interface boards with a variety of outputs and the processing power required to support image recognition and object avoidance software. 

The wider supply chain

Less glamorous robots are also helping to keep the supply chain running behind the scenes. Freight transport includes road, rail, marine and air operations, all of which have introduced robotic solutions for inspection and maintenance.  

Robots for underwater environments have particularly stringent requirements as they must operate under extremes of temperature, pressure, moisture and salinity. Devices used in transport applications are subject to high levels of dust, vibration and water ingress.

Steatite have a range of computersrugged tablets and batteries specifically designed for such use, which are rigorously tested and certified to various EU, military and transport industry standards. 

High-resolution, high-speed image and video capture is made possible by our Harrier cameras, so, for example, robotic trolleys moving along railway lines can inspect the condition of the rails and alert operators to any damage, warping or obstacles on the line. 

Smart robotics are able to go beyond fault diagnosis and carry out simple repairs. This is an important way to reduce the cost of maintenance, effectively eliminating the requirement for human intervention following the initial inspection. This is where AI is playing a part, as algorithms allow a robot to fully assess a flaw and make decisions as to how and when to report or repair it. Carrier boards such as Jetson Nano and Tiny Jetson deliver the compute power required to run AI-enabled platforms in a compact form and bring increased efficiency and cost-savings to supply chain maintenance. 

Logistics made simple

Robotic solutions designed to meet the challenges of the logistics industry require specific and tailored components for which flexibility and reliability are key. Steatite engineers have decades of experience in designing, testing, building, integrating and supporting systems in this industry, contact us to find out how we can support your fulfilment, warehousing and transport requirements.