Full Circle, from Order-Filling to Filling POs

Material handling in today’s warehouse includes a variety of package types and new SKU’s added daily.
Material handling in today's warehouse includes a variety of package types and new SKU's added daily.

Have you or anyone you've ever known worked at a distribution center or a supply chain facility? One that almost guarantees overtime due to high demand and labor shortages? Or how about one known for high turnover rates and daily risks of injury? And you always hear the phrases…

"There has to be an easier way to do this."

"Robots should be doing this."

or the opposing: "One day, robots are going to take all of our jobs."

Those were all expressions I heard working night shifts at a distribution center. Back then, I had recently back home after a poor attempt of freshman year in college. I worked 13 hours a day at $17/hr. Not bad for an 18-year-old back in 2011. Yet low and behold, the same stubborn 18-year-old became immobilized in bed with a thrown-out back. It was at that moment when I decided I'd rather throw myself back in school.

In hindsight, I never exactly planned on having a career to solve the labor issues above. Arbitrarily, I desired to be a part of the world's change for the better. Fast forward several grueling years of engineering studies — here I sit in a warehouse, commissioning our software on a robot for the application for the I once lost mobility for.

Winning the Golden Robot Award for my contribution in the lab.

What exactly does our software do?

Plus One Robotics' software allows robots to handle the same labor-intensive jobs that I and many others would face in the warehouse, such as singulation, sortation, depalletizing, packing and more. Using AI and 3D vision technology, these sight-enabled robots can do anything from picking-and-placing items from totes to unloading a full pallet of mixed items that fall on your next grocery list. Not only can these robots relieve labor-shortages in the new world of e-commerce, but we also believe in keeping humans in-the-loop rather ever replacing them.

So how does human intervention work?

3D and AI-powered software instructs the robot how to sort, pick and place items in boxes and totes on a conveyor.

Humans are phenomenal in the way we process things. Automation simply trickles down to loops, signals, and code. Humans have forethought, instinct and the ability to make order out of seemingly uncomplicated scenarios:

Imagine if you were an order-filler in a warehouse, packing containers of construction nails into shipment boxes. One package was not manufactured correctly and breaks open, spilling nails on the inside of your box. As a human, you could easily remedy this. Even getting a robot to pack synonymous packages of nails is easy until a mishap like this occurs. How do you program a robot to handle this scenario?

Another scenario is if you're at one end of the warehouse and there's a packing lane issue across the entire distribution center. Imagine the amount time it would take for you to walk across and fix the situation just to continue production. Due to the booming world of e-commerce, there are many instances where only humans are capable of processing these exceptions in the warehouse.

Plus One Robotics software called PickOne can pick a variety of items, including ones never before seen.

Lastly think of all the items you could order online or buy in-store. There are endless types of objects from an apple to an Apple TV. So much in fact that current AI and 3D vision technology will always be a few production items behind. Sure, robots can handle picking up the same parcels or boxes endlessly, such as the synonymous boxes of nails mentioned above. That's the easy part! The same task becomes difficult when you begin to introduce new and diversely shaped items, new packaging tactics, or dealing with many of the logistical issues that arise. There's no doubt AI and 3D will get you 98% of the way there, but how do you keep up with the times? Changes are constant, costly, and time-consuming. Pilots, projects and installations can take months!

To get to 100% now, humans need to come in. When an order-picking robot gets stuck, our software allows humans to see on screen exactly what a robot is having trouble with and can tell the robot how to proceed with a simple click. For example:

Imagine a robot utilizing a suction cup to pick electronic items out of totes at a nearby warehouse. The robot comes across totes containing hard drives, cameras, remotes, and all the like. The next tote that crosses its path contains a bundled extension cord. Your robot goes for the cord itself, but unfortunately cannot get suction due to the lack of surface area. After a couple tries, your robot sits there and decides it needs help. It sends a request through the cloud onto your web browser. You hear a notification as you're cooking in the kitchen. You run over to your laptop and see the bundled extension cord. You notice the flat cardboard label strapped across the middle and click accordingly. The robot picks at that exact spot. Success! Then the robot continues about its day fulfilling production rates until the next spontaneous issue appears.

Our software makes it that easy. This is the special 2% that keeps our clients up-to-date with production rates immediately rather than 5–6 months later for another soon-to-be obsolete, custom retrofit install. The best part about this remote supervision system is the ability for a Crew Chief, a modern day robot-wrangler, to supervise a team of robots from anywhere around the world. Talk about scalability!

Gamers make great Crew Chiefs as their skills are ideal for commanding robots where to pick and place objects.

The world of online shopping and logistics is growing more now than ever since the pandemic — budgets are tight, labor is scarce, and demand is at an all-time high. We give the ability for those same hard-working people to supervise and let those robots perform the hard work, either in person or remotely. Not only can they just supervise one robot, but they can manage 10 or more. All it takes is a standard web browser and your skills from an arcade claw-machine. The only difference: picking up items with our technology is a lot easier than winning a prize at your local arcade.

If you're interested in finding our more about the Crew Chief role and how automation can help maintain throughput in labor shortages, get in touch!

— marlon.geronimo@plusonerobotics.com