Features, Technology

Rise of the Machines

In 350 BC, a Greek mathematician named Archytas created the first robot, a wooden dove that flew 650 feet. In 1495, Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have built an armored robot with inner workings. In 1966, The Stanford Research Institute developed Shakey, which looked something like a stripped-down ATM and the first robot to incorporate logic and reasoning-a precursor to AI.

From these and many other rudimentary beginnings evolved a fascination with robots and robotics that has sparked the imagination of scientists, industrialists and, of course, been mother’s milk for every science fiction writer.

Sparking a Revolution

But we are only now seeing the signs of a real autonomous revolution in robotics and drone technology that could change the face off retailing, manufacturing, distribution and even labor relations, thanks to the convergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

At present, robots in retailing are being explored for three basic functions-in-store service, such as providing directions or product information; inventory robots to track stock and retrieve items for customers; and delivery bots that would bring the store to the customer.

We have yet to see a robot that can fold a sweater or make a sandwich. But they are slowly emerging as essential tools everywhere from the military and operating rooms to household vacuums as they become faster, smarter, more flexible and easier to use.

However, replacing humans will be a slow process although unemployment is likely to rise as robots are increasingly assimilated into the workforce. A recent Forrester report noted that only about six percent of U.S. jobs would be automated by 2021. According to the Robotics Industries Association-yes that’s a real thing-collaborative robots, “coots” that work with humans, are the area of greatest interest. And retail assistants are one of the top ten jobs in jeopardy as conversational interfaces with customers are further developed, experts note.

Slave Labor?

A word of caution here for anyone thinking about replacing humans entirely. Robot comes from the Czech word robota which translates loosely into “slave labor.” This is not a can of worms anyone wants to open. On the other hand, you must admit that the ability to store, stock and deliver goods without the human touch is the stuff which dreams are made of.

Companies like Amazon are literally fulfilling the dream. The company has a one million square-foot distribution center in Baltimore where humans are rarely needed. At Ikea, robots are used to carry up to 750 pounds of merchandise in warehouses and are deployed to tape up boxes and put on shipping labels. It’s been estimated that Amazon’s proprietary technology will be capable of replacing human warehouse workers entirely within five years.

Some companies are more direct about their intentions. Chinese e-commerce company JD.com said its goal is to have a 100 percent robot workforce. No timetable on that, but its chairman Richard Liu is resolute.

Automated warehouses are an old story in retailing but autonomous ones are a new wrinkle. When combined with autonomous manufacturing and delivery, as the Wall Street Journal has said, result in a fully automated supply chain. It’s been called the beginnings of the “physical cloud” where similar items are stored in different locations and only the robots know where they are.

Delivering Goods-and Data

The physical cloud also foresees companies like Amazon and Walmart (both have patents for this) operating airborne blimp warehouses that will deliver products to customers with an army of drones. This is entering the realm of science fiction but given the pace of tech advancements-who knows?

  • Walmart recently introduced shelf-scanning robots in 50 locations around the U.S. The robots check inventory, prices and misplaced items to help with inventory practices. Additionally, these robots will be collecting data that Walmart says will help improve nationwide inventory practices.
  • Target is using its Tally robot to manage inventory in the stores and stock shelves. It can also determine if products are in the wrong place, something that a human stocker might not notice or, more likely, ignore.
  • Best Buy has Chloe, a robot picker that goes up and down warehouse aisles locating products that have been ordered by customers. It’s also been tested at a store in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York and looks like an industrial robotic arm that picks products for customer.
  • In the UK, online supermarket company Ocado, has patents involving vertical farming. This could be the beginnings of the ultimate consolidated supply chain by having food grown, packed and shipped from one facility. Ocado, already considered one of the movers and shakers in the retail robotics movement, is reportedly developing robots big enough to handle shipping containers that would speed up loading and unloading of delivery vehicles at ports where bottlenecks are common. This is an important step towards smoothing out the international supply chain and getting product in stores more quickly.
  • Going from the sublime to the ridiculous-or so it appears-Starbucks in Australia is experimenting with delivering cups of coffee by drone.

Investment Soars

If there’s one thing that will speed up the development of fully automated, AI-enabled supply chains it’s money. This doesn’t seem to be the issue with free spending investors salting robotics firms with a seemingly endless supply of cash. A spending study by Massachusetts-based IDC forecast worldwide spending on robots and drones to reach $103 billion in 2018 with robotics alone accounting for $94 billion of the total, which is expected to more than double by 2021. Worldwide drone spending will be $9 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow at a faster rate than the overall market with a five-year CAGR of 29.8 percent, the report said.

According to this extensive study, Industrial robotics will account for more than 70 percent of spending, followed by service and consumer robots. Manufacturing is spending more than $60 billion in 2018. The retail and wholesale industries will see the fastest robotics spending growth over the forecast with CAGRs of 46.3 percent and 41.2 percent, respectively. IDC said.
In a recent update, IDC forecast the global spending on robotics systems and drones will total $115.7 billion this year, an increase of 17.6 percent over 2018. By 2022, spending is expected to reach $210.3 billion and experience a compound annual growth rate of 20.2 percent, the research firm said.

This year’s spending will be dominated by hardware purchases, with nearly two-thirds going toward robotic systems, after-market robotics hardware and system hardware.
About 90 percent of spending on drones go to drones and after-market drone hardware. Consumer drones will account for roughly 40 percent of the category total in 2019 with service drones delivering another 18 percent.

Future Skills

As Stacey Soohoo, research manager for Customer Insights & Analysis at IDC noted: “Drones are developing new skills, coupling 3D mapping and fully autonomous navigation capabilities with rapid improvements in battery performance and air-traffic management systems. Drone adopters continue to search for a safe, cost-efficient, and repeatable drone solution that can be easily implemented in a variety of situations and use cases.”

Interestingly, it’s been said that the mechanics of robotics has reached maturity and the future lies in artificial intelligence, advanced vision systems that will enable robots to work with people rather than replace them outright.

Moreover, worldwide drone spending will be $9 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow at a faster rate than the overall market with a five-year CAGR of 29.8 percent, the report said.
William Stofega, program director for Mobile Device Technology and Trends, told IDC, “We expect that drones will soon become part of the connected-home providing home security, monitoring children at play, or delivering groceries.”

So where, geographically, is all the action taking place? IDC pegged China as the largest geographic market for robotics, accounting for over 30 percent of all robotics spending, followed by the rest of Asia/Pacific, the United States, and Japan. The U.S. was forecast to be the largest geographic market for drone spending at $4.3 billion in 2018, followed by Western Europe, China, and the rest of Asia/Pacific (excluding China and Japan).

Before you get too excited let’s not forget that all this is nascent technology still suffers from logistical, legal and even moral issues. But let’s also remember that the time to prepare is before the firestorms hit.

And, just for safety’s sake, don’t discuss too much in front of your Roomba.

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