Imagine a warehouse predominantly operated by robots that handle backbreaking tasks such as lifting and unloading heavy containers, sorting and shelving inventory, and fulfilling orders. This automated future is not too far away, thanks to technological advancements and innovations by companies like Mujin. The Tokyo-based automation startup has partnered with JD.com to create the world’s first automated warehouse, CNBC reports.
Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com utilized Mujin’s technology to transform a 40,000-square-foot Shanghai warehouse into an automated facility. The warehouse is equipped with 20 industrial robots that pick, transfer and pack orders using crates on conveyor belts. Other robots cart the merchandise to loading docks and trucks for shipment, helping to accelerate the e-commerce fulfillment process. JD.com and Mujin describe the facility as fully automated because it requires only five human workers to manage and maintain the robots. A facility of similar size usually requires 400-500 human employees to support operations.
In these automated warehouses, robots could potentially do more than just picking, packing and transferring items. Mujin’s system incorporates cameras and robot controllers for vision and motion planning that can make any robot capable of autonomous and intelligent action. If a robot is tasked with grasping an object, for example, its controllers can automatically generate the required motions without first needing to be manually taught, CNBC author Tim Hornyak explains. By shortening or eliminating the learning curve, the technology is able to deliver efficiency sooner, he says.
This approach is in contrast to the deep-learning trend in robotics. Typically, robots learn to accomplish their duties through trial and error. In Mujin’s system, the robots are programmed to do their specific tasks, and every position of every robot joint is tracked down to the millisecond to reduce the possibility for error. This level of accuracy and predictability requires massive computational power, so the system uses fast microchips that can evaluate the tens of thousands of possible moves and quickly choose the correct one to complete the required task.
Although Mujin’s cofounder and chief technology officer Rosen Diankov sees the potential for this technology in the American market — especially because Amazon is investing in warehouse automation through Kiva Systems — he and other company leaders opted to test the technology in Japan first. Here, the business case is more valuable, as the number of workers in Japan is dropping by 2,125 people per day due to the country’s declining birthrate. Automation can help fill this talent gap.
Most of this technology still is in development. For example, during a demonstration at a recent tradeshow in Tokyo, one of the robots accidentally damaged a box. Similarly, visions for factories and warehouses of the future are under development. Diankov explains in the article that recent technological innovations have created multiple tools for warehouses, including robots, sensing devices, artificial intelligence and more. The facilities of the future could include any combination of these and other innovations working together to support operations. For now, it’s hard to know for certain what the warehouses of the future will look like.
Collaborating for innovation
One part of the future that is certain is that supply chains will continue to transform. As business continues to evolve, companies need to continually evaluate their operations and consider opportunities to incorporate emerging practice, which the APICS Dictionary defines as, “The introduction of new technology, knowledge or significantly different methods of organizing processes.”
JD.com has a history of being an innovation leader. The company partnered with APICS last year to help develop an omnichannel benchmark system for the APICS Supply Chain Operations Reference model. JD.com also was one of the first companies to use drones for commercial deliveries, and it already has been using artificial intelligence and big data insights to develop innovative applications for automation technology, according to the company’sblog. The e-commerce giant is committed to investing in and developing technology to improve its operations, and its founder, CEO and chairman, Richard Liu, has been talking about his vision for automated JD.com facilities since spring, Forbes reports.
As we launch the Association for Supply Chain Management, we are embarking on new thought-leadership collaborations with groups from around the world to study the latest trends, uncover innovations, propel supply chains forward and transform how companies do business. For example, a partnership with the American Institute of Artificial Intelligence will help build awareness of artificial intelligence implementations and strategies within the supply chain. Other collaborations will support developments in logistics, procurement, manufacturing, sales and operations planning, professional education, and more. To learn more about how these collaborations will support your company’s innovation and transformation efforts, visitascm.org/about-ascm/global-network.
Abe Eshkenazi, CSCP, CPA, CAE