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AI in Material Handling

Artificial Intelligence: Hype or Game Changer

Adam Cole | 01 November 2017

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been in the news a lot lately.  Self-driving cars, smart personal assistants (e.g. Amazon’s Alexa), and recommendation engines that serve up your favorite movies and books, are all exciting AI applications that you have probably heard about.  There are, though, many more, including in material handling automation.  To remain a competitive ecommerce, distribution, or manufacturing facility, it is important to understand how AI will affect you. Will it prove to be a disruptive, transformational force, or is it just hype?

Artificial Intelligence in Material Handling

Research into AI is well funded and progressing quickly in the material handling arena.  As reported by the NY Times, researchers in Berkley, for instance, are working on robots that can look inside a bin full of randomly sized objects, quickly understand the size and shape of each discrete item, and then successfully grab one and place it in a desired location.  This type of behavior has always been outside the capability of robots, requiring companies to hire human “pickers” to perform it.  Other areas of research include self-navigating autonomous industrial vehicles (e.g. AGVs and fork trucks), using AI to optimize material flow in a facility, predictive maintenance for material handling components, and many more. There are also many AI applications that have already moved from research to employment in facilities around the world.  Self-navigating industrial vehicles, although still an area of research, are already in many warehouses (continued research will serve to increase their capabilities).  Omron’s mobile robot, Adept, for instance, will automatically drive to desired locations once it has mapped a facility.  With the ability to grab objects of different shapes, there are even some robotic grippers that are already employing a portion of the technology being researched by the Berkley group.  Clearly, then, AI has had a substantial effect on material handling automation, and with continued research, it will continue to shape it.  Does this mean we can expect a future where distribution centers and manufacturing facilities are totally automated, i.e. without any human workers?  Perhaps, but probably not. To date, AI has increased the capabilities of material handling automation, and automation, in turn, has made workers more productive and valuable.  Thus, in my experience, after automating a process, companies do not eliminate workers.  Rather, those workers become much more productive or are moved into a different process that provides more value.  For example, a goods-to-person system such as AutoStore will drastically increase the number of items a human picker can pick, so the human is not replaced, but is now much more productive.  Eventually, I do think that researchers like those at Berkley will create systems that replace the human picker in this process, but that person will not go away.  Machines are not perfect, and humans will need to supervise them and correct them when they make mistakes.  The picker, therefore, will become a supervisor of intelligent machines, taking immediate corrective action when the machines make mistakes in order to keep production moving.

Is Artificial Intelligence Just Hype?

Now, getting back to the original question, is AI more than just hype?  I think the answer is yes and no.  Yes in that, as explained in the preceding paragraph, AI is already advancing automation, which, in turn, is making workers either more productive or freeing them to perform activities that provide more value.  No in that we probably will not have distribution centers with zero employees. The amazing research in AI will continue to make workers more productive, but I don’t think the technology to fully replace humans is imminent.  Consider, as a final example, neural networks - a type of AI with a lot of recent publicity.  They are inspired by the brain, but, in reality, are “more closely related to traditional mathematical and/or statistical models” as noted in Scientific American.  Thus, for the foreseeable future, human brainpower will not be replaced. Fortunately, Bastian Solutions has decades of experience marrying automation with people to maximize productivity and return on investment.  If you are looking for a partner to help you integrate the latest automation technology, including AI, call Bastian Solutions today!

Author: Adam Cole


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