Self-directed robots are the new warehouse workers

Completely autonomous robots may replace warehouse workers in the not so far-off future, thanks to the ingenuity of millionaire Rick Cohen.

His company, Wilmington, Mass.-based Symbotic, developed an automation system for warehouses and distribution centers that relies entirely on robots to store, handle and haul cases of goods around the facilities.

Unlike most other warehouse automation systems, which rely on robots that are bolted down or limited to fixed routes, Symbotic's robots — resembling driverless go-carts —can travel freely up and down storage aisles to stack or retrieve cases as fast as 25 miles an hour, according to the report. They deliver and retrieve one case of goods a minute, about five times faster than a human on foot. The robots are 28 inches wide, allowing warehouses using Symbotic's automation system to have smaller aisles — and thus more storage room — than typical warehouses, which can have aisles up to 12 feet wide.

In conventional warehouses, cases of a specific product are normally stored in the same space so workers can easily locate them. However, Symbotic's robots can put a product anywhere on the shelves since their software notes the location of each product, allowing for more dense storage.

Symbotic plans to roll out about 12 fully automated food warehouses across the country using the technology. The company already has agreements to supply robots for Target and Coke's distribution center in South Brunswick, N.J., and Walmart is testing the system for two of its distribution centers. According to Symbotic, the robots cut distribution center labor costs by 80 percent and allow warehouses to be 25 to 45 percent smaller.


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