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Robotics & AI in Logistics: I, Robot.

by Andrew Fanner,
May 18, 2023
A row of digital scanners neatly lined up, essential tools in logistics and inventory management
A row of digital scanners neatly lined up, essential tools in logistics and inventory management

Table of Contents:

How robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming the logistics industry in Australia and worldwide.

“Any problem can be solved with the proper application of sufficient technology.” 

– Isaac Asimov

Robots have fascinated humans since the time of the ancient Greeks, whose legends are filled with metal beings called automatons: animate metal beings in the shape of men, animals and monsters. And robots have given science fiction writers endless opportunities to investigate the good (Wall-E, R2-D2, C-3PO, Optimus Prime) and the bad (Skynet, The Terminator, AVA) in artificial intelligence.

These days, of course, the reality of robots is much more mundane. Robots are increasingly finding their way into industry and logistics, replacing their human counterparts in repetitive and dangerous jobs. 

So let’s flick the Access Standby button to ON and take a look at how these sophisticated helpers are making life easier for logistics operators.  

[Don’t] Kill All Humans!

One of the main characters in the animated TV show Futurama is Bender, a foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking, beer-swilling robot. Built in Mom’s Robot Factory, Bender’s catchphrases include “I’m back, baby!”, “I got beer and floozies” and “Kill all Humans.” 

The show is loaded with other robots such as Malfunctioning Eddie (whose head explodes every time he gets stressed), a third-rate robot actor called Calculon, and Bender’s love interest: a massive female robot called The Crushinator. 

The reality of robots, however, is much less entertaining but much more useful. Rather than engaging in bouts of drinking and human-killing, real-life robotics systems are now bringing a range of benefits to the logistics and parcel delivery industry. 

As the technology around robots evolves, robotic systems —  along with the AI and software systems needed to control and monitor them — are now becoming more common in large sorting and distribution centres. 

Health and efficiency

Robotics are able to automate repetitive, tedious and error-prone tasks in the logistics supply chain. Operations such as sorting, picking, packing, loading and unloading parcels are currently dependent on large numbers of skilled and highly-trained staff. 

By introducing robotic systems into this part of their operation, logistics companies can reduce human labour costs, improve accuracy, increase productivity and optimize the space utilization of their premises.

Tireless and speedy workers

Robotic systems speed up delivery operations by reducing delays, conveyor belt congestion and human error. This ensures that goods can proceed through processing facilities as rapidly as possible and be out for delivery in the most timely fashion.  

Another developing facet of robotics in the logistics industry is the use of drones and robots to actually deliver parcels to remote or hard-to-reach areas, bypassing traffic and obstacles along the way. This is widely regarded as the Holy Grail of robotic parcel logistics but is, as yet, still fraught with problems.

A system trialled by Australia Post in 2017 returned inconclusive results, sighting problems with potential theft, and the need for a human “minder” to accompany the robotic machines, as hurdles that still need to be overcome.

Safe and sustainable

A major benefit of robotics is that it can improve the safety of workers by reducing their exposure to hazardous or risky situations, such as heavy lifting, accidents and the strains caused by repetitive jobs. There is also a benefit to mental health as the boredom often associated with these repetitive operations can be alleviated by reassigning staff to more stimulating jobs 

In addition to this, robotics can help reduce the environmental impact of logistics and parcel delivery by lowering fuel consumption, emissions, noise pollution, and waste. Software and AI systems are also of huge benefit to the sustainability of logistics businesses as they can optimize routes, allot efficient delivery schedules, and monitor metrics such as demand forecasts and supply chain issues to ensure timely deliveries. 

Digital Transformations

While the use of robotics and AI in the logistics industries is still in its infancy, some systems are now sufficiently developed to be viable options. 

Picking it up and putting it down

Forklift AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) are specifically designed to replicate the functions performed by human-operated forklifts. Guided by sensors and software that enables them to navigate intelligently and avoid collisions, these machines can efficiently transport large quantities of parcels and freight within a facility. 

AGVs present a promising opportunity for distribution centres to reduce (or even eliminate) the need to recruit and train skilled operators for mundane manual tasks such as forklift driving. AGVs can also enhance worker safety and optimize resource utilization by applying dependable and predictive solutions for repetitive duties.

For example, Australia Post’s Redbank sorting facility near Brisbane, has 23 AGVs deployed, working 24 hours a day to autonomously move cages filled with parcels across the site. These robotic forklifts operate seamlessly, without any human intervention, freeing up existing staff to work in more productive jobs within the facility. 

Tipping points

Another innovation at the Redbank facility is its array of four robotic tipping arms. These tilting and rotating arms can tip multiple types of pallets and cages containing packages onto the electronic sorting lines operating in the facility. 

The arms can tip 80 cages of parcels per hour: triple the number that humans could achieve. By introducing these robots, the facility has reduced human interventions by 250,000 per day and removed several processes that often induced strain injuries in its workforce.

Robotic pickers

Trials by a European parcel logistics operator are seeking to introduce a robotic solution that replaces conventional manual tasks such as picking and sorting. The robots are learning to emulate human operators, which will enable them to handle various types of parcels, especially those that have challenging wrapping, are of irregular shapes or are enclosed in polybags. Using human-like movements, the robots skillfully grab parcels from conveyor belts at precise angles and transfer them to the correct sorting conveyors.

Unfortunately, training these robots to achieve such high levels of intelligence and dexterity takes a long time. Unlike Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — who has “a brain the size of a planet” — these parcel-sorting robots have to be taught to think for themselves from scratch. But through machine learning, they eventually acquire the capability to identify a diverse array of parcel profiles and respond appropriately to dropped or misaligned parcels. This continuous accumulation of data gradually builds up to an enduring learning process which enhances their skills and knowledge.

The Road Ahead

The logistics and parcel delivery industry is undergoing a major transformation thanks to the rapid development and adoption of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. These technologies are enabling faster, cheaper, safer, and more sustainable delivery solutions for businesses and consumers across Australia.

The potential of robotic technology in revolutionizing parcel handling and distribution processes still remains largely unexplored. However, it is undeniable that robotics are significantly enhancing the functionality of handling processes and actively reshaping the automation landscape. 

As the technology gathers momentum, robots are poised to become a critical asset for CEP (Courier, Express, and Parcel) businesses seeking to improve their efficiencies, reduce their operating costs, and increase the throughput of their operation. 

Robotic systems will also help alleviate the challenges of staff sourcing by reducing the number of staff required to process and handle large volumes of products. Oh, and don’t worry…they won’t “kill all humans” in the process!

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