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Outbreak Pushes Supply Chain Automation and Robotics to the Fore

The coronavirus outbreak and the worldwide reaction to the pandemic will force companies to radically rethink how they operate and embrace technological investment, according to a new report from global tech market advisory firm ABI Research.

In its white paper, “Taking Stock of COVID-19: The Short- and Long-Term Ramifications on Technology and End Markets,” ABI Research analysts conclude that bold decisions and technological investments could lead to more concerted and widespread movement to fully automated manufacturing and increased use of autonomous materials handling and vehicles transport.

ABI also said these investments and advancements would create a more integrated, diverse and coordinated supply chain and spur a move to virtual workspaces and practices.

“To effect change, there must be a stimulation of a magnitude that means companies cannot do anything but make bold decisions to survive,” Stuart Carlaw, chief research officer at ABI Research, said. “COVID-19 is that magnitude.”

However, before this potential long-term impact is felt, there will be some serious short-term implications, Carlaw noted. These include contractions in consumer spending, disruptions to supply chains and reduced availability of components.

“In the short-term, there will be a retrenchment in outlooks…[and a] reduced investment in modernization, as survival instincts trump the drive to prosperity,” he said.

The report noted that the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in more companies utilizing robots for public applications. One method has been using mobile unmanned platforms with ultraviolet (UV) light to disinfect facilities. Danish company UVD Robots has deployed robots in 45 countries. U.S.-based Germ Falcon is offering a similar UV disinfection solution for aircraft.

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TuSimple, a player in the autonomous vehicles sector, makes self-driving trucking technology.
TuSimple, a player in the autonomous vehicles sector, makes self-driving trucking technology. TuSimple

At the same time, the rise in e-commerce is fueling rapid volume growth in parcel delivery, a market expected to grow to $665 billion by 2030, according to Lux Research. That’s because consumers are increasingly expecting packages to be delivered quickly, and the demand is driving companies to explore using automated delivery technologies to cover the last leg of the delivery journey, especially with social-distancing requirements in many areas.

Lux Research’s new report, “Automating the Last Mile,” predicts that automated last-mile deliveries will generate up to $48.4 billion in revenue by 2030, even though automated deliveries will only address 20 percent of all parcel deliveries.

“Most of this e-commerce growth is expected to come from Asia because China and India still have a relatively low amount of parcel deliveries per capita,” Lux Research senior analyst Chris Robinson said.

Lux Research noted that automated last-mile delivery technologies fall into four key categories: drones, legged robots, wheeled robots and autonomous vehicles. Of these, autonomous vehicles paired with drones show the most promise, with Lux Research expecting them to deliver more than 20 billion parcels a year by 2030.

Drones are currently limited to a small delivery radius, but this range can be extended by deploying them from a moving autonomous vehicle, the report noted.

Berkshire Grey, a robotics and AI company delivering retail, e-commerce, and logistics fulfillment automation, this week announced that its next generation Robotic Store Replenishment (RSR) solution is now generally available for retail customers. The robotic picking solution automates break-pack operations where orders are picked and shipped in customer specified containers to stores where associates re-stock shelves.

Berkshire Grey customers are using RSR solutions today to pick millions of items in production operations, with typical payback periods of three years or less for operators.

The company said that because RSR enables efficient autonomous picking of smaller inventory quantities, the solution is popular with retailers seeking to optimize store inventory levels while ensuring best in-stock positions. The RSR is part of Berkshire Grey’s portfolio of omnichannel fulfillment solutions that include robotic e-commerce fulfillment, robotic induction for traditional sortation and robotic parcel sortation systems.

“The RSR presents forward-leaning retailers with the opportunity to gain competitive advantage in today’s changing retail environment,” Peter Van Alstine, senior vice president and general manager for retail at Berkshire Grey, said. “The RSR helps retailers overcome the challenges of optimizing store inventory levels and customer service while dealing with a tight labor market.”

UPS said this month it has begun testing the suitability and durability of Gaussin electric vehicles, which also have autonomous driving capability, to move semi-trailers and containers on the grounds of its advanced-technology London Hub.

Also this month, autonomous-driving technology company TuSimple expanded its freight-hauling pilot program with UPS to 20 trips a week and added another route. The San Diego-based company is already transporting parcels for the shipping giant between Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. It will now run 10 trips between Phoenix and El Paso, Texas.

TuSimple is using retrofitted trucks for the autonomous driving program. The trucks can drive themselves, but regulations require that a safety driver be present in the cab to monitor operations and take control if needed.

The goal of such technology is to eventually move the driver out of the cab, and TuSimple plans to demonstrate fully driverless operations next year.

The company projects that its technology can reduce the costs of shipping goods by tractor-trailer 30 percent and said its autonomous driving system is already demonstrating efficiencies. For example, it said the automated trucks are using about 10 percent less fuel compared to a human-driven truck.

DHL Supply Chain and Locus Robotics are expanding their partnership to include 10 new, nationwide deployments of the Locus autonomous mobile robots in 2020.

“DHL Supply Chain’s initial implementation of the Locus solution within the life sciences and retail sectors was a tremendous success,” Jim Gehr, president of retail at DHL Supply Chain North America, said. “We saw increases in fulfillment productivity of up to 80 percent in selected customer operations.”