As Supply Chain Bogs Down, Autonomous Mobile Robot Sales Trend Up
It’s peak season for moving pallets around the world.
And while most of this activity is still performed by humans operating forklifts, there is finally evidence of more meaningful use of advanced warehouse automation technology, particularly the use of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
These are robots designed to grab, drag and store pallets to/from loading dock.
As a sub-category, AMRs dominate the warehouse automation market that could exceed $40 billion within the next half-decade, with an expected compound annual growth rate of 15%, according to a recent report from LogisticsIQ.
One trusted industry expert, citing global robot sales statistics obtained from a variety of sources, focusing on the warehouse sector, claims that in 2020 there were around 60,000 orders for warehouse-ready robots and that around 75% were for AMRs; in 2021, these orders jumped to 100,000, with AMRs representing 80% of them.
The US accounts for about one-third of these robot orders. Projections for 2022 indicate that when all is said and done, a warehouse mobile robot growth rate of at least 30% (over 2021) will be recorded. This reliable but unnamed industry source’s estimates are confirmed anecdotally.
“We have booked 20-vehicle orders for next year,” said Craig Malloy, CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based Vecna Robotics.
Until the past year, most companies, including third-party logistics providers, tested a few AMRs at one site and became comfortable in what Malloy describes as “pilot program purgatory.”
Challenges related to and caused by the pandemic, such as a surge in e-commerce activity and labor shortages, have created supply chain bottlenecks that come and go, forcing logistics operators to accelerate the pace of automation within distribution centers over the past two years .
“Now we have multiple customers who operate ten or more vehicles and are looking to grow that fleet,” said Vecna’s Malloy.
As many as 200 companies, worldwide, manufacture AMRs. This type of robot should not be confused with the AMR predecessor, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), a category that refers to robots that move pallets of goods along a predetermined path and require operator supervision.
Neither AGVs nor AMRs should be confused with self-driving forklifts which are traditional vehicles equipped with software that allows them to drive autonomously. Although AGVs and AMRs both look like self-driving forklifts, AMRs hold things together on a whole different level – using sophisticated sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning and computerized path planning techniques to navigate their environment, untethered to a fixed trajectory.
AMRs are equipped with cameras and sensors so that if they encounter an unexpected obstacle in their path, they can slow down, stop or reroute and keep going.
As of 2020, GEODIS, a global supply chain operator, has improved the process of picking, delivering and storing materials at one of its busiest distribution centers in Dallas. GEODIS has deployed a fleet consisting of several of Vecna’s automated pallet trucks (APTs), a type of AMR, as well as a software-driven fleet orchestration system, said its VP of engineering, Eric Douglas.
Vecna’s AMRs at GEODIS perform several key tasks. They clean designated dock doors and bring pallets to pick-and-drop locations (or “P&Ds”) throughout their various facilities to increase inbound throughput and “dock-to-stock” time, and work with forklift operators. Using the AMRs to eliminate horizontal travel and reduce trips to the dock improved productivity by approximately 30%.
“GEODIS has since expanded the solution to other facilities and continues to work with Vecna on new opportunities,” said a Vecna spokesperson.
Meanwhile, XPO Logistics
The facility, located at the Segro East Midlands Gateway, a rail hub in Leicestershire, has been dubbed the “Digital Distribution Warehouse of the Future”. It was designed from the ground up to distribute Nestlé products using sophisticated robotics, automated sorting systems and XPO’s intelligent analytics.
Tiger Global Management recently made a bet on warehouse automation — leading a $65 million Series C round for Vecna.