Businesses adopting robots for new tasks

But will the machines and their ilk take away jobs -- even white-collar ones?

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Johnson has since graduated from high school and will attend the University of Maryland, College Park, in the fall. He says he hopes to be able to stay on at Langley and continue telecommuting while in college. He says there were no real negatives to the VGo robot; he liked the video quality and performance, and the center purchased a 12-hour extended battery, which he says were very useful. In terms of future improvements he'd like to see, Johnson says it would be nice to have some kind of "joystick mechanism" to maneuver the unit.

Using robots to stay relevant

Think Logistics, a Vaughan, Ontario-based third-party provider of supply chain services, has been thinking about its future. Its parent company, Duplium Corp., is a successful optical disk manufacturer that has produced CDs, DVDs and packaged disks for 15 to 20 years. But the handwriting is on the wall for Duplium: The software and entertainment industries have become heavily focused on digital downloads, making it hard to predict how long optical media will remain relevant, says Stuart Pearson, vice president of contract logistics at Think Logistics.

   Stuart Pearson
Stuart Pearson, vice president of contract logistics at Think Logistics, estimates that his company will see a return on its multimillion-dollar robotics investment in approximately two years.

Think Logistics decided to concentrate on logistics -- shipping a wide variety of products to consumers on behalf of its clients, which include retail stores and distribution centers, he says, since that is a growth area and a natural fit for the company, which already has experience in shipping and logistics.

But that type of logistics -- handling individual units rather than cartons of products -- is not very automated, Pearson adds, and the company figured there had to be a way to change that. The way to gain a competitive edge in processing orders, Think Logistics believed, was through robotics. Unlike traditional third-party logistics providers, which typically don't make capital investments in automation technology until they have a contract with a customer and can amortize the investment over the life of the contract, Think Logistics had the "desire, interest and aptitude from a capital perspective" to bring in cutting-edge technology from the very beginning.

The company turned to Kiva Systems. Acquired by Amazon in 2012, Kiva is a provider of automated systems for storing and handling physical goods. Pearson had seen a demo of Kiva's technology at a trade show, and he felt it had the flexibility to handle many different product types -- a capability that Think Logistics needed. Kiva "has an inherent flexibility in that its storage system can store anything from a small part to a large item or garment on a hanger," says Pearson.

The Kiva robotic fulfillment system is in use at Think Logistics' 124,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, where 15 bright orange robotic drive units are assigned multiple tasks, such as picking up a shelf unit (known as an "inventory pod") or traveling to another section of the facility to bring an item to a person receiving inventory.

"If there's a mechanical issue or fault with one of the robots, that task can be reassigned to other units," says Pearson. Unlike traditional carousels that are commonly used by third-party logistics companies, he says, the Kiva units are "massively parallel, meaning you've got multiple, autonomous drive units or robots, so you don't have any single point of failure."

The fulfillment system was deployed in June 2012. Before that, Think Logistics did everything manually and used static shelving and pallet-racking systems for storage. "We would have our associates walking with pick carts or pallet jacks into our storage system to manually pick out product and put product away," Pearson says.

Think Logistics didn't have to lay off any employees when it started using Kiva equipment. Instead, a combination of business growth and improvements in efficiency driven by the new technology made it possible for people to handle more tasks and be more productive, Pearson says. In a typical e-commerce warehouse, workers spend 40% to 60% of their time walking around picking up goods, counting goods or putting goods away. The Kiva system has eliminated almost all of that walk time, he says.

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