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With robots, forklifts will never be the same again

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Robotic technology will transform the forklift industry, causing a transfer of value from human driving services towards spending on autonomous industrial material handling, writes DR KHASHA GHAFFARZADEH, Research Director, IDTechEx.

Robotic technology will also transfigure this industry, slowly but surely, enabling the rise of new types of autonomous mobile material handling units that will permeate into all aspects of our daily lives over the coming two decades.

The new IDTechEx Research report Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037 provides a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of this transformation. Indeed, it provides technology and market assessments for all aspects of mobile robotics material handling and logistics. It shows, quantitatively, how some technologies will rise to transform industries whilst others will face becoming obsolete. Uniquely, this report takes a 20-year view of the future. This is essential because of the time scales on which these changes are likely to operate.

More specifically, this report provides the full picture, including technology assessment, detailed twenty-year market forecasts clearly explaining/justifying the different phases of market evolution, and company overviews/profiles/interviews. It covers AGVs/AGCs, autonomous mobile material handling carts/units and vehicles, mobile picking robots, autonomous light vans and trucks, last mile delivery drones, ground-based last mile delivery droids and so on.

Background

Autonomous cars are the subject of a lot of hype and the media attention. Yet, despite being the largest prize, they will be amongst the last vehicle types to go fully autonomous. This is because their environment is poorly structured, and they are thus hard to autonomize. The current models of ownership and usage also provide a weak motivation for the general public to pay for autonomous driving, constricting adoption to high-end cars until long-term technology learning curves bring prices sufficiently down.

A drastically different picture is found when one looks beyond passenger cars: all manners of commercial vehicles operate in a variety of semi-structured and controlled indoor and outdoor environments. In such cases, the technology barrier to autonomy is lower whilst a pricing system already exists that values the provision of driving services. Warehouses and factories are examples of such environments, and are thus an appealing target for autonomous mobility technology.

Incumbent automated technology to go obsolete

Indeed, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been around since 1950s, essentially acting as long-range distributed conveyer systems. This technology itself has matured: sales have diversified beyond just automotive factories and assembly lines, the onus has shifted onto suppliers to spend effort in developing customer specifications, and price pressures are increasingly intense.

The latter is critical in this highly fragmented business landscape where suppliers offer comparable levels of competency. We find that it is likely that companies with partnerships with major forklift players will command a competitive advantage via the removal of margin stacking. This partially explains the recent activities by forklift players to acquire, or partner with, AGV companies.

AGVs, and in recent years AGCs (carts), are enjoying healthy, albeit slow, growth. Yet, the industry is on shaky ground. Indeed, we assess that AGVs will face a slow journey towards technology obsolescence in the next 15 years. The current positive growth rates, we find, give a false sense of long-term security, and companies will increasingly face an adapt-or-die situation.

Indeed, the IDTechEx Research report Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037 will provide an assessment of why this technology will lose in the long-term. We will also provide a quantitative picture of its modest growth in the near future and its slow decay in the long-term

Rise of independent mobility

The challenge to the incumbent AGV technology comes from the next generation of navigational autonomy technology. Current AGV systems are rigid and require infrastructure modifications, i.e., the placement of references points or lines to guide the vehicles. These systems safely work across all payload ranges. They are however difficult to tweak, require advanced full system planning, and involve a large onsite installation time which represents a major manpower overhead.

Fully autonomous systems will do away with such shortcomings. They offer flexibility in that routes can be changed via a software interface and updated via the cloud, and benefit from short installation time involving the CAD model of the facility and/or the walking around of one robot for ‘training’ it.

Current models all have limited payloads, partially because safety is not yet fully trusted. The robots and software are also still somewhat expensive, limiting applicability to less cost-sensitive sectors. Human workers may also put a resistance to wide-scale adoption, seeing them as more of a threat.

None is however a showstopper. This transition towards infrastructure-free and independent autonomous navigation technology will take place. The payloads will increasingly rise to cover the full spectrum and hardware costs will fall thanks to major investment in other autonomous driving industries. In fact, we assess that very soon costs across the board will fall below the level of AGVs since they save on installation and infrastructure modification costs.

This story can be contextualized as part of a slow change in the navigation technology for AGVs moving from low-cost wire or magnetic tape guidance to laser localization and now to natural feature recognition and SLAM. This technology evolution however increasingly necessitates a transformation in the nature of the companies towards software and algorithm plays. Indeed, it is the importance of software (autonomy algorithms, fleet/inventory management systems, user interfaces) that explains why California has emerged as a hotspot for investment and start-ups in this arena.

Luckily, many of the major changes will arrive in small evolutionary steps, giving the wise incumbents the chance to go with the flow and exploit their customer relationship and application know-how to stay in the warehouse/factory mobility automation game. They will however have to fundamentally alter their engineering skillset.

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Colossal value transfer towards vehicle suppliers?

Independent autonomous navigation enables the mobile material handling vehicle industry (e.g., forklifts, tugs, etc) to generate far more revenue than would have been the case without autonomous mobility. Indeed, vehicle suppliers will increasingly capture the value that currently goes to the wage bill spent on human-provided driving services.

As quantitatively demonstrated in our twenty-year forecasts, this will represent a major sum despite the fact that our projected figures for future autonomous mobility hardware costs suggest a long-term devaluation of driving services in high-wage regions.

Our technology roadmaps also suggest that autonomous forklifts will soon become a major feature of the industry, despite them not even being mentioned in major forklift companies’ investor presentations today. Indeed, our forecast model suggests that nearly 70% of all forklift sold in 2038 will be autonomous.

This transformation will of course not take place overnight. Indeed, the timescales of adoption will be long, explaining why in our study we have chosen to build 20-year models where different phases of growth are clearly marked and underlying assumptions/conditions explained.

In our forecast model for autonomous mobile industrial material handling vehicles, we project that annual sales of autonomous versions will steady rise but remain a tiny share of the global addressable market until around 2023. We will then enter the rapid growth phase soon after, causing a transformation of the industry and dramatically raising adoption levels.

Note that the forklift industry is open to innovation. It embraced electric powertrains in the past, particularly for indoor environments and in Europe. It will also adopt autonomous navigation. In fact, merger and acquisition between forklift and automation (also AGV) companies is already a noteworthy trend.

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Beyond the confines of factories and warehouses

Interestingly, new types of mobile robots are emerging. Here, the rise of navigational autonomy will enable mobile material handling units (robots) to enter new walks of life. This is because mobile robots will become increasingly able and authorized to share spaces with humans, intelligently navigating their way and avoiding objects. They will therefore enter new spaces to ferry items around, diffusing from highly controlled and structured environments towards increasingly less structured ones.

These technologies will share a common technology platform with other autonomous material handling units, although each application will need to be adapted to each environment, and this ability to customize (or initiate) will remain a source of value for start-ups and SME for years to come.

Here, currently, the hardware is often an integral part of the software which is customized to each environment. This prevents commoditization in the short- to medium-term, but will not manage to prevent in the long term. Consequently, such mobile robotic companies will inevitably have to seek new sources of revenue. Therefore, a long-term re-thinking of business models will be required with emphasis shifting from the robot onto data-based or delivery services. Our contacts tell us that this re-thinking too has already begun.

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IoT sensors are anything from doctor to canary in mines

Industrial IoT is changing the shape of the mining industry and the intelligence of the devices that drive it

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The Internet of Things (IoT) has become many things in the mining industry. A canary that uses sensors to monitor underground air quality, a medic that monitors healthcare, a security guard that’s constantly on guard, and underground mobile vehicle control. It has evolved from the simple connectivity of essential sensors to devices into an ecosystem of indispensable tools and solutions that redefine how mining manages people, productivity and compliance. According to Karien Bornheim, CEO of Footprint Africa Business Solutions (FABS), IoT offers an integrated business solution that can deliver long-term, strategic benefits to the mining industry.

“To fully harness the business potential of IoT, the mining sector has to understand precisely how it can add value,” she adds. “IoT needs to be implemented across the entire value chain in order to deliver fully optimised, relevant and turnkey operational solutions. It doesn’t matter how large the project is, or how complex, what matters is that it is done in line with business strategy and with a clear focus.”

Over the past few years, mining organisations have deployed emerging technologies to help bolster flagging profits, manage increasingly weighty compliance requirements, and reduce overheads. These technologies are finding a foothold in an industry that faces far more complexities around employee wellbeing and safety than many others, and that juggles numerous moving parts to achieve output and performance on a par with competitive standards. Already, these technologies have allowed mines to fundamentally change worker safety protocols and improve working conditions. They have also provided mining companies with the ability to embed solutions into legacy platforms, allowing for sensors and IoT to pull them into a connected net that delivers results.

“The key to achieving results with any IoT or technology project is to partner with service providers, not just shove solutions into identified gaps,” says Bornheim. “You need to start in the conceptual stage and move through the pre-feasibility and bankable feasibility stages before you start the implementation. Work with trained and qualified chemical, metallurgical, mechanical, electrical, instrumentation and structural engineers that form a team led by a qualified engineering lead with experience in project management. This is the only way to ensure that every aspect of the project is aligned with the industry and its highly demanding specifications.”

Mining not only has complexities in compliance and health and safety, but the market has become saturated, difficult and mercurial. For organisations to thrive, they must find new revenue streams and innovate the ways in which they do business. This is where the data delivered by IoT sensors and devices can really transform the bottom line. If translated, analysed and used correctly, the data can provide insights that allow for the executive to make informed decisions about sites, investment and potential.


“The cross-pollination of different data sets from across different sites can help shift dynamics in plant operation and maintenance, in the execution of specific tasks, and so much more,” says Bornheim. “In addition, with sensors and connected devices and systems, mining operations can be managed intelligently to ensure the best results from equipment and people.”

The connection of the physical world to the digital is not new. Many of the applications currently being used or presented to the mining industry are not new either. What’s new is how these solutions are being implemented and the ways in which they are defined. It’s more than sticking on sensors. It’s using these sensors to streamline business across buildings, roads, vehicles, equipment, and sites. These sensors and the ways in which they are used or where they are installed can be customised to suit specific business requirements.

“With qualified electronic engineers and software experts, you can design a vast array of solutions to meet the real needs of your business,” says Bornheim. “Our engineers can programme, create, migrate and integrate embedded IoT solutions for microcontrollers, sensors, and processors. They can also develop intuitive dashboards and human-machine interfaces for IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) devices to manage the input and output of a wide range of functionalities.”

The benefits of IoT lie in its ubiquity. It can be used in tandem with artificial intelligence or machine learning systems to enhance analytics, improve the automation of basic processes and monitor systems and equipment for faults. It can be used alongside M2M applications to enhance the results and the outcomes of the systems and their roles. And it can be used to improve collaboration and communication between man, machine and mine.

“You can use IoT platforms to visualise mission-critical data for device monitoring, remote control, alerts, security management, health and safety and healthcare,” concludes Bornheim. “The sky is genuinely the limit, especially now that the cost of sensors has come down and the intelligence of solutions and applications has gone up. From real-time insights to hands-on security and safety alerts to data that changes business direction and focus, IoT brings a myriad of benefits to the table.”

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Oracle leads in clash of
e-commerce titans

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Three e-commerce platforms have been awarded “gold medals” for leading the way in customer experience. SoftwareReviews, a division of Info-Tech Research Group, named Oracle Commerce Cloud the leader in its 2020 eCommerce Data Quadrant Awards, followed by Shopify Plus and IBM Digital Commerce. The awards are based on user reviews. 
The three vendors received the following citations:

  • Oracle Commerce Cloud ranked highest among software users, earning the number-one spot in many of the product feature section areas, shining brightest in reporting and analytics, predictive recommendations, order management, and integrated search. 
  • Shopify Plus performed consistently well according to users, taking the number-one spot for catalogue management, shopping cart management and ease of customisation.
  • IBM Digital Commerce did exceptionally well in business value created, quality of features, and vendor support.

The SoftwareReviews Data Quadrant differentiates itself with insightful survey questions, backed by 22 years of research in IT. The study involves gathering intelligence on user satisfaction with both product features and experience with the vendor. When distilled, the customer’s experience is shaped by both the software interface and relationship with the vendor. Evaluating enterprise software along these two dimensions provides a comprehensive understanding of the product in its entirety and helps identify vendors that can deliver on both for the complete software experience.

“Our recent Data Quadrant in e-commerce solutions provides a compelling snapshot of the most popular enterprise-ready players, and can help you make an informed, data-driven selection of an e-commerce platform that will exceed your expectations,” says Ben Dickie, research director at Info-Tech Research Group. 

“Having a dedicated e-commerce platform is where the rubber hits the road in transacting with your customers through digital channels. These platforms provide an indispensable array of features, from product catalog and cart management to payment processing to detailed transaction analytics.”

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