What is Robotic Materials and How Will It Improve Warehouse Efficiency?

Meagan Douglas
Tue, Jan 16, 2018
Material robotics will turn every part of the machine into a data-collecting
Material robotics will turn every part of the machine into a data-collecting "brain."

Robots have been becoming more of a presence in the supply chain over the last several years. At online retail warehouse giant, Amazon, robots now bring the shelves to the workers and do most of the heavy lifting. The New York Times reported that Amazon had roughly 125,000 human workers and 100,000 robots operating within its warehouses.

Despite this, humans are not losing their jobs - at least not yet. For all the recent advancements in robotics, most traditional models suffer from two large deficiencies. However, robotic materials may be the innovation that allows robot work versatility to match that of its human counterparts.

Current Deficiencies in Robotics

Robots possess advantages over human beings. Machines do not need sleep, meaning they can constantly work on the supply line. While robots break, they do so less often than the living workforce. A robot can stack thousands of pounds in a day without throwing out its back or breaking an arm.

"Robots cannot 'see' their environment the way that people can."

However, human beings have basic senses that robots currently do not. While robots come equipped with numerous sensors, they cannot "see" their environment the way that people can. A person can instantly spot an item on the shelf while a robot just senses shapes - and whether or not it recognizes that shape depends on how much it matches data criteria.

This makes ubiquitous shapes like blu-ray or video game packaging appear identical to many machines. Human workers remain the primary pickers because robots simply cannot understand what they are looking at with enough consistency.

Another sense that humans take for granted is touch. We can feel the texture of an object in our hands, understanding at once a multitude of traits - soft, hard, brittle, strong, rigid, flexible. Basic robotic systems lack this feedback. This means that a robot would crush an object like an egg without realizing it, especially if the egg was not the right size for the machine's parameters.

Today's robotics have only one centralized data feed or "brain." However, new breakthroughs in robotic materials are poised to change this.

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What Robotic Materials Mean to a Supply Line

The idea for robotic materials actually comes from nature. Marine animals like octopuses and cuttlefish have been found to have a nerve network that acts like an extended brain. Essentially, all parts of the animal can understand its surroundings at all times.

Robotic materials work on this principle. There is not one centralized "brain" in the robot body but rather data processors in every portion. Singularity Hub, referencing Science Robotics data, stated that robotic materials will be able to sense, communicate, adapt and process data from all points. Machines will be able to mimic the litany of senses that humans process when completing simple tasks like picking up a grape. 

In manufacturing, this could have transformative applications. This surplus of new data will fuel every piece of hardware driven by machine learning. As robotic materials become more prevalent in the supply chain, warehouse management will become more automated. Technically skilled labor will be more in demand but many current warehouse workers may become obsolete.

While robots still cannot see with human-like vision, their sense of touch will allow them much greater versatility in the warehouse.

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