Cobots – the next big thing on the path to digitalized logistics?

Scenes that were previously only known from science fiction movies are about to become reality as cobots increasingly enter the workforce! According to the logistics and digitalization experts of CAMELOT Management Consultants, these collaborative robots will impact logistics dramatically. In this article I am going to show why.

It is only a few years ago that personnel robots were a thing out of SciFi-movies and novels. R2D2 and its siblings were fun to watch, and humanoid robots as in the movie “I, Robot” not really scaring anyone. All of these robots seemed part of a distant future, maybe something for our grandchildren to experience.

In contrast to these fantasies, highly specialized and efficient robots have been taking over specific tasks in the manufacturing industries for more than two decades. A human worker gluing a car window into its position in a car factory already seems an activity from a distant past. So while we are still big steps away from robots that aim to take over the world, robots have silently become a part of our industrial work life – and it doesn’t take a visionary to know that this development is just getting started.


2017 – The year in which robots went mainstream

But while the industrial use of robots has been on a steady growth path, the year 2017 was decisive in a different way: Robots, mostly small and with a singular capability, started to become a regular part of private households. However, opposing to what popular culture tried to portray, robots entered the human life in fairly unspectacular ways: As vacuuming, grass cutting and window cleaning devices.

What these tasks have in common is that humans are released from activities that have never been a particular joy to the majority. Robots have therefore finally become a tool to return leisure time to people. In combination with rapidly falling prices, this has led to a leap forwards in terms of human acceptance of robots.

Additionally, smart devices as Amazon’s Alexa also entered homes in swiftly increasing numbers. While these devices are technically not robots but more Artificial Intelligence interfaces, they definitely help to further abolish the reservations of users in engaging with devices that show robotic and humanoid capabilities.

2018 – The engagement year for humans and cobots

Considering how quickly these little robots have become mainstream, it is more important than ever for businesses and especially those involved in logistics to think ahead.

  • How can our company capitalize on recent advances in robotics?
  • Which enablers do Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence provide for our future logistics processes?
  • What do we need to do to successfully digitalize our business model in the starting era of cobots?

What are cobots and how are they different from traditional robots?

Cobots, an abbreviation for collaborative robots, are robots that are intended and designed to interact with humans colleagues within a common area.

Key prerequisite for this release out of their traditional confinements is that they have an awareness of their surroundings and the capability to react safely to unexpected events.

 

As innovators and early adopters begin to search for answers to these questions, exciting trials are being set up. Parcel delivery companies for example are testing the use of cobots during the delivery process. The role of the cobot is thereby to carry the packages and follow the delivery worker autonomously on open streets. The worker can therefore focus on customer interaction and is partially relieved of the heavy lifting currently involved in courier and parcel distribution processes.

Another example illustrates very well how massive the impact of cobots on processes will be: In many small parts picking processes cobots can and increasingly are being implemented to move entire racks to the packing area, where a human colleague picks the requested items out of the rack and the cobot transfers the rack back to a storage position. With such an implementation, human picking walks become a part of history and the efficiency of pick & pack operations can be tremendously increased.


While the answer to the questions above is already too complex to be covered by a single blog post, it is import to build up awareness and get involved in the relevant developments. The very likely increases in efficiency and workers’ well-being are simply too immense not to be taken seriously. The time has come to engage the human workforce with cobots!

written by
Franz Winter
Franz Winter is a senior consultant in the Logistics Practice at CAMELOT Management Consultants. Within this practice his activities are primarily in the context of the Digitalization of Business Models for chemical and pharmaceutical clients. Franz’s areas of expertise are especially in supply chain processes, warehousing and distribution networks.

This post is also available in: German