How Robots Will Transform the 2020s
There are now some 120,000 warehouses globally, and another 50,000 are likely to be added before 2025. Over the next few years, more robots will be deployed into these warehouses—the logistics market—than in all other application categories combined, including farming, medicine, and home use. Just as the 1960s saw the mechanization of industry, with an accompanying boom in productivity and prosperity, the 2020s will be the dawn of the robotification of services.
Industrial robots came into use in 1961 when General Motors (G.M.) installed a simple robotic arm on its New Jersey production line. The machine had been invented by Unimation, a company founded by the father of robotics, Joseph Engelberger—a self-professed Isaac Asimov enthusiast. By 1969, G.M. rebuilt its Lordstown, Ohio, factory with an array of Unimates to perform welds, and the facility soon achieved a twofold leap over its former production rate, making it the most productive factory in the world. (That same factory would be sold in 2020 to startup Lordstown Motors, with plans to make electric trucks.) Automobile manufacturers everywhere were among the first and fastest to embrace industrial robots.
The International Federation of Robotics, founded in 1987, issues an annual robot census. When 2020 began, it found nearly 400 million industrial robots at work in factories around the world, twice the number from five years earlier. But for the first time, over half of all robot purchases globally were in services, not industrial applications. And while growth in the latter is expected to continue, installations of service bots are expected to rise more than 200 percent in just a couple of years.
About half of all service robots are found in the logistics market, with “inspection” applications at about one-fifth. The military, an early and ongoing supporter of robotic technology, accounts for only a tiny fraction of the market. The rest is made up of everything from professional cleaning and fruit picking to delivering medications in hospitals.
The service-bot counterpart to the robotification of G.M.’s Lordstown factory came in 2012, when Amazon spent $775 million to buy Kiva Systems. Kiva had invented a clever self-propelled turtle-like robot that can scoot around warehouses carrying entire shelf-units of packages.
Firms like Amazon and Walmart need more than the information exchanged between buyers and sellers in cyberspace; they need the physical exchanges that occur in warehouses. That’s how the seamless experience of “one-click” shopping happens. Kiva-class service bots are the cloud’s hands and feet, directly and wirelessly controlled by the cloud in real-time.
In the past decade, annual net additions to warehouse square footage have increased 400 percent. That helps explain a nearly identical 400 percent increase during the past five years in service robot sales into the warehouse and logistics supply chain.
E-commerce has done more than increase the demand for warehouses; it has changed their function. Before, pallets of goods arriving at a warehouse were redistributed, often again on pallets, to local retailers, where staff would unpack and sort the goods onto shelves for display. One-click e-commerce has pushed the latter half of this process back upstream into warehouses, many of them multi-story structures bigger than football fields, where single packages (down to a tube of toothpaste or a single book) are grabbed, boxed, and delivered directly to the consumer’s doorstep.
As e-commerce pushes more and smaller warehouses toward the edge of supply chain networks, closer to consumers, service bots solve another problem. Since such edge facilities are necessarily located where real estate is more
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