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By: David Howard | G+

Robots swarm warehouses

It’s no secret that online fulfillment from large and small online retailers are continually seeking to improve operations. One of the most labor-intensive environments is "picking and packing" orders. Navigating warehouses with 1000s of SKUs and acres of shelving is time consuming and tiring. Several companies are attempting to affordably bring industrial robots to the supply chain to assist in the effort.

The leader? Kiva Systems’ bots

One of the early pioneers, who has garnered praise and fame after Amazon purchased the start up, is Kiva Systems from Boston. Kiva’s bots navigate the warehouse floor and retrieve shelf pods - ferrying them to the human pickers. A swarm of robots intelligently manage inventory, even cycling low demand inventory to the back of the warehouse to keep frequently retrieved merchandise towards the front.

To lift the portable racks, the robots slide under and then use a proprietary ball screw to lift the rack while the bot rotates in the opposite direction to prevent the racks from spinning. The bot and ball screw are powered by simple DC motors and use standard lead acid batteries that provide about an eight-hour charge. The bots frequently "take a drink" by docking at various recharging stations to keep the battery fully charged.

An evolving solution to supply chain challenges.

Kiva is not alone in the warehouse automation landscape. Fraunhofer is one of Kiva’s competitors that utilizes swarm behavior technology to increase efficiency. Similarly, Symbotic, Swisslog, and Dematic are trying to reshape the supply chain through novel automation techniques.

Robots are still electrical machines

Robotic systems utilize carbon brushes and electrical contacts. Kiva’s F-bots overview indicates they use DC motors for propulsion and lifting. Competing solutions incorporate "elevators" and "conveyor" type options for delivering the goods. Further, to improve operating time, batteries are wired in parallel, and likely include overload or rapid discharge safety mechanisms.

Robots work longer, but they do wear out

As with all electrical components, robots eventually wear down. Now imagine the maintenance or repair costs on a fleet of 100s or 1000s of robots. Whether old or new, companies will eventually succumb to financial pressures and seek out comparable, but more affordable replacement parts. Fortunately, Repco’s, Marlton, NJ warehouse, stocks 1000s of replacement electrical contacts, carbon brushes and other motor and control parts for 100s of current and obsolete OEM series. 

That insight solves the porlbem. Thanks!

1/7/2013 10:00:58 AM

~ Lucinda

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