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

Dustin Caudell
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 how it sounds, humans are not losing their jobs to robots — at least not yet. For all the recent advancements in robotics, humans still excel in two key areas over traditional robot models. However, robotic materials may be the innovation that increases robot work versatility to match that of its human counterparts.

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Current Deficiencies in Robotics

Robots possess several 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 risk of injuries like throwing out its back or breaking an arm.

If robots possess so many clear advantages over humans, then why continue to employ humans in the warehouse?

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

For one, 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, not common sense.

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.

Most robots utilized in warehouses and manufacturing still require human intervention and/or oversight. Smart robotic materials may change that.

Although we may take it for granted, humans also possess 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 could easily crush an object like an egg without realizing it, especially if the egg was not the right size for the machine's parameters.

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

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 the same principle. Rather than using one centralized "brain" in the robot body, data processors are distributed throughout the machine. 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 or an egg. 

In manufacturing, this could have transformative applications. The surplus of new data generated will fuel every piece of hardware driven by machine learning. As robotic materials become more prevalent in the supply chain and warehouse management becomes more automated, demand for technically skilled labor will increase. However, many current warehouse workers may become obsolete in the process.

While robots still may not be able to see with human-like vision, adding the sense of touch will allow robots significantly greater versatility in the warehouse.

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