As an industry with it roots firmly embedded in general manufacturing and automotive assembly, robotics has seen its share of declines in North America as production moves offshore and the economy nosedives. But that doesn't mean doom and gloom for material handling robotics. Robot suppliers say the high-tech equipment is not going away; rather, it's moving into warehouses and distribution centers (DCs). Goods made offshore still need to be stored and processed through local distribution, they emphasize. What's more, distribution challenges, particularly in food, grocery and consumer goods, are not getting any easier.

“The next big step in automation will be in the DC,” predicts Marc Ducharme, vice president of palletizing solutions at Axium. The Montreal-based company develops robotic systems for the food and consumer goods industries. “Distribution used to have a black-sheep perception, but that's changing because there are new ways to automate DCs,” he says.

Robotics has reached a “tipping point,” adds Dick Motley, account manager of national distribution sales at Fanuc Robotics. “Cost has come down and systems are more reliable and flexible, allowing greater access to technology.”

Motley agrees that robotic technologies are moving out of manufacturing and into warehousing. “We see interest in high-speed picking, especially from freezer to flow wrapper and then through packaging and palletizing,” he says.

Ducharme has seen interest in robotic layer depalletizers and mixed-load palletizers for projects set to go live in two to eight months. As a result, he expects an economic rebound in the second quarter of 2010. “Companies seem to be preparing for when the economy comes back,” he says.

Joseph Cyrek, director of advanced engineering, joining and vision technologies at Comau Inc., concurs. “From a robotic systems viewpoint, the last 12 months have been very difficult,” he says. “All market segments have seen reduced activity, with the biggest decline being in the automotive sector. The lone exception is the aerospace industry, where orders have actually risen in the last 12 months.”

Like Ducharme, Cyrek believes a turnaround will begin in the second quarter of 2010. “Customers are sending requests for proposals (RFPs) now for projects due to be implemented in the 2010 to 2013 timeframe,” he says.

The Rainbow Connection

Robotics suppliers say a large number of RFPs are focusing on packaging because of increasing demands from retailers. “Motoman is seeing a dramatic increase in packaging market activity,” says Tom Sipple, material handling technology leader at Motoman.

It's the palletizing function within packaging that's getting the most attention. That's because an increasing number of retailers require DCs to build mixed (rainbow) pallets, consisting of items of various sizes, shapes and weights. Many DCs must create built-to-order loads in store-ready configurations.

“The challenge is to build a puzzle where the pallet is made of a variety of shapes, sizes and weights that goes to the point of retail,” says Motley. “On the distribution side, software algorithms can complete a 3D puzzle of boxes of unlike sizes and build it into a store-specific or even truck-route-specific load,” he says. “Versatile tooling can handle a variety of products for mixed-load palletizing, and robotic vision systems and software can evaluate stability and shipping density to help build that pallet puzzle.”

Early next year, Axium plans to introduce a new mixed palletizing system, the ROP (robotic order picking) 2000. A faster version of the company's ROP 600, the ROP 2000 will process 2,000 cases per hour. Cube IQ software “talks” to the robot, telling it where to place cases of different sizes and shapes to optimize the pallet load.

“One of the biggest trends in the use of material handling robotics is the implementation of vision guidance,” says Cyrek. “An affordable, well engineered, easy-to-use robotic guidance system can save the customer capital investment by eliminating the need for precision locating fixtures and enabling low-cost future flexibility.”

Comau's RecogniSense single camera, 3D robotic guidance system with visual recognition can interface with robots via RS-232 or Ethernet standards and does not require calibration or structured lighting, according to Cyrek. “We have taken the complexity out of robotic guidance and simplified it to allow the plant floor-level technician the ability to understand and use the technology, something previously reserved for engineers,” he adds.

Industry-wide strides in simplifying integration and operation have made vision systems more popular. “Vision systems used to be hard to integrate with robotic systems,” says Sipple at Motoman. “We work with Cognex to develop MotoSight 2D and 3D solutions, which tightly integrate the robot with the vision system, making things easier for the end user,” says Sipple. “Flexibility and ease of changeover is the cornerstone of the robotics business.”

Motoman also recently partnered with Universal Robotics to integrate Universal's spatial 3D vision software into Motoman's industrial robots. The companies expect to release robots with spatial vision in the material handling market in early 2010. Applications include 3D bin picking, parts racking and de-racking, and picking loosely oriented parts from a conveyor.

Vision systems allow robots to react to different circumstances at high speeds, says David Peters, president and CEO of Universal Robotics. “High-speed controllers allow vision-enabled robots to respond instantaneously to new information,” he says. “For example, if a part is swaying or loosely oriented, a robot can handle it on the fly.”

“DCs are not afraid of machine vision anymore because it has become more cost effective and user friendly,” Motley adds. “A robot can react to what it is presented with. From an operating standpoint, this means faster changeovers and versatility. Vision is an uptime enhancer.”

Joe Campbell, vice president of sales and marketing for the ABB Robotics division in North America, agrees that vision systems are becoming easier to apply. “The products are more robust and better integrated into the application software,” he says. “Hardware and software used to be two distinct animals, but now, they are tightly integrated, and that allows for identification of irregular products in any orientation.”

The Human Factor

Still, Campbell believes the most important benefit of robotics is its impact on labor. “Robots take the human touch out of the process,” he says. “Robotic systems can improve ergonomics and speed as well as help companies that are having difficulty recruiting and retaining people. Labor availability is the issue, not cost,” he adds.

Ducharme from Axium agrees, saying DCs often have trouble finding people willing to work the night shift or build pallets day in and day out.

Robotics can also eliminate the propensity for human error in applications that demand near-perfect accuracy. “Some retailers will return an entire pallet if there is one mistake,” says Ducharme. “DCs can achieve 100% accuracy with a robot, and that's on top of the labor savings.”

Those savings, according to Cyrek, can be substantial. “Robotic systems can reduce direct labor requirements, thus reducing the handling costs per bag/unit, thereby reducing input costs,” he says. “In a recent proposal, we were able to offer a cost savings of $0.043 per unit handled, resulting in a $289,000 cost savings per year. ROI of the system was 13 months.”

Automotive Industry Pummels Robotics

North American robotics companies saw orders for new robots decline 36% in units and 47% in dollars through the first half of 2009, according to the most recent statistics report from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). The second quarter alone saw declines of 43% in units and 51% in dollars over the same period in 2008. The quarter was also down 29% in units and 26% in dollars from the first quarter of 2009.

Weakness in orders received from automotive industry OEMs and suppliers is the major factor in the decline, according to Jeff Burnstein, president of RIA. “The automotive industry, the largest customer for robots in North America, is in the midst of a major upheaval,” he says. “That's one of the reasons we knew 2009 would be a very difficult year for the robotics industry, so there are no surprises in the first-half results.”

However, RIA reports a 34% increase in orders from the life sciences/pharmaceutical/biomedical industries and a 7% increase in orders from the food and consumer goods sector.