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The CSS Perspective: Robotics and Automation

Robotics and automation are playing a bigger role than ever in distribution as supply chain professionals strive to increase efficiency and keep pace with growing fulfillment demands. So what awaits the industry? DC speed Group Editorial Director David Maloney recently brought together five experts from MHI’s Conveying and Sorting Systems industry group to get answers and find out what the future holds for the automation and robotics markets.

Roundtable participants

Jeff Brown, Senior Manager, Global Industrial Solutions Division, Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc.
Tim Kraus, Intralox

Tim Kraus, Product Manager, Intralox
Satyen Pathak, designed conveyor systems

Satyen Pathak, account manager, designed conveyor systems
Doug Schuchart, Beckhoff Automation

Doug Schuchart, Materials Handling and Intralogistics Manager, USA, Beckhoff Automation LLC
Markus Winkler, TGW

Markus Winkler, Head of Advanced Technology, TGW

Q: Automation and robotics are booming right now. Often these terms are used almost interchangeably. How do you define automation and robotics as they apply to our industry?

Satyen Pathak – Designed Conveyor Systems: We see a big difference between automation, which is kind of the conventional part, and robotics, which is the new art. I usually distinguish between the two by asking myself, what is the degree of autonomy? To what extent can he make his own decisions? This is how I distinguish between standard automation and new robotics. We call this “cognitive robotics”, where robots take over decision-making, reasoning, etc. It’s kind of the new era, but there’s kind of a mix, and you can’t really draw a line between them.

Doug Schuchart – Beckhoff Automation: You may be limiting yourself if you think robotics is like conveyors and sorting. This is another tool in the automated systems toolbox. Often, robotics works with something else. Rarely is it just a completely autonomous robot for an automated solution. Another way to think about it is how to combine the right mix of technologies and the new technologies that are coming to us every day.

Q: Traditionally, conveyor systems have been the go-to technology for moving products on a fixed path. Now we have autonomous mobile robots that can perform similar tasks. Does the conveyor industry view AMRs and other robots as a threat or as a complementary technology?

Markus Winkler – TGW: We don’t really see him as a threat. I think it’s a great opportunity. I see it as something that adds to our skills. We are fortunate to understand these new technologies and apply them correctly to our advantage.

Tim Kraus – Intralox: The way we try to think about it is that we know there are certain applications where a robotic solution offers a clear advantage over automated conveyors, sorters or separators. We try to think about how we can increase this: how can we make it work better, faster and more reliably? Is there anything we can do to present things to a robot to make it much more efficient and help with the total solution?

Q: The pandemic-fueled e-commerce explosion has spurred demand for systems that handle parcels and small items. Does this affect the types of conveyors your customers choose?

Jeff Brown – Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc.: Absolutely, we see it. Before, everything was a complete affair. Now it’s not just about moving the individual items, but also taking into account the wide range of packaging items can come in. In addition to boxes, there are now different types of polybags which have added to the challenge. We see air filled bags, poly and paper envelopes. All of these things add to the mix – it’s not just the size of the item, but how it’s packaged and how that affects the appearance of the conveyor solution. [Customers] don’t necessarily specify rollers or belts, but they want a solution that minimizes downtime and meets throughput demands without damaging the packaging.

Doug Schuchart – Beckhoff Automation: We also see that groceries and pharmaceuticals are now treated more as part of e-commerce. So we have to adapt to an even wider range of product types, as well as handling requirements that differ from what we’ve seen in the traditional retail space. This expands the types of automated equipment that may be needed, and it plays into some of the equipment innovations we’re seeing in the market.

Q: How have conveyor installations changed over the years, and is it easier to integrate with robotics and other types of automation than before?

Markus Winkler – TGW: I think the big challenge is that we need to make the conveyors much easier and faster to install. They are more like an integrated product. It’s food. It’s communication. That’s the logic that comes with the conveyor, and that’s the package. This is certainly driven by the changes our customers are seeing. Now we are challenged to implement large integrated systems in months where before it was probably years. That’s where all those modular designs come in.

Q: Rising labor costs are one of the main reasons people are turning to automation. As these costs continue to rise, do you think this will help strengthen the case for automation?

Satyen Pathak – Designed Conveyor Systems: We are living in a unique time in that we are coming out of a pandemic and wages are rising to entice people back to work. I believe automation is in a cycle of constant change. I still think that robotics still has a long way to go before it is considered a proven and reliable traditional technology, like cross-belt sorters and in-line sorters. It is only in its infancy. But I see robotics developing at a higher rate.

Q: Conveyor companies are more than just hardware suppliers. They see themselves as solution providers. How do you approach implementing these new technologies (sensors, IoT, vision systems, robotics and other types of automation) with the conveyors and sorters you manufacture?

Tim Kraus – Intralox: Businesses need to evolve to think about the overall solution. If you’re just thinking about building the conveyor itself, you’re going to miss what else. How does he fit in? Where does it fit best? How does it work with other technologies? The whole industry naturally needs to move in this direction to ensure that the solution is relevant and that it can be combined with the right things to create a great system for our customer.

Jeff Brown – Mitsubishi Electric Automation Inc.: Nowadays, customers are not just looking for a brand. They are looking for a solution that will meet their current and future needs. It used to be that there were haulage companies that only had their material handling equipment and you as a customer felt like you had to stick to one brand. But as customers evolve and learn about technology and what is available in the market, they are looking for what will be the best solution for their business and operations.