Ti has often highlighted the potential use of robotic systems across the logistics landscape and, as we know, robots have been operating within various industry sectors for decades. Many of these installations have been used for large scale repetitive manufacturing tasks such as those found in the automotive sector. As technology has advanced and critical components have become smaller, more reliable and power efficient, robots and robotic systems have expanded into a variety of sectors, including ecommerce and logistics operations.
Many of the advanced fulfilment centres operated by companies such as Amazon, Walmart, Ocado, etc. have used robots to improve service levels and accuracy as they scale up. Workers in many companies understand that they will be working in an environment where they are either assisted by a robotic system or act in concert alongside robots.
More tech trends from Ken in the latest podcast.
The humanoids have arrived
In some of our recent reports we have mentioned the work of companies such as Boston Dynamics and provided links to its (often impressive) videos featuring the latest generation of their robots either running, jumping, dancing or performing in a human like manner. In all other respects though the units themselves are obviously ‘mechanical’ and are unlikely to be viewed as anything else. This is about to change.
On March the 2nd, a robotics startup called Figure, based in California’s Silicon Valley, unveiled its first product. It is a general purpose ‘humanoid’ robot that is designed to be deployed across a range of commercial and domestic environments alongside (or instead of) humans.
The company did not reveal the robot itself, only the CAD drawings and images being used by the production process. The reason this announcement has attracted serious attention rather than being lost in the general PR noise surrounding most technology announcements, is because of the team building the robot.
They are all experienced and have been working on these technologies for government advanced research agencies and successful manufacturing start-ups (in some cases for decades). They include specialists in technologies such as human machine cognition, DARPA’s robotics challenge competitions, NASA’s Valkyrie project, researching the use of humanoids for space exploration.
They have also hired engineers from Boston Dynamics, Apple, Tesla and Google’s X division amongst others. This is a large and growing team of specialist engineers, focused on bringing the robots to market. They have initial funding of at least $100 million for the first phase of development.
The reason they have focused on a humanoid design for the robot is that although robots have been used in many manufacturing scenarios, with designs optimised for the task in hand (such as welding and screwing machine parts together thousands of times without interruption and incredibly reliably), our world has been designed around human form. We are very adaptable and dexterous. So rather than try and adapt tasks to fit the shape of the robot, it makes sense to design the robot to resemble us, for optimal performance.
This approach does however have implications around packaging. A lot of the necessary technology has to be adapted and to fit into a humanoid shape. Think about the provision of capabilities to enable a sufficient range of movement in the limbs, appropriate sensor technology that can interpret touch, and the force required to grip, push or pull objects correctly. etc.
The task is really to create a system combining advanced autonomous intelligence, combined with hardware that can function safely in a range of scenarios. The team understand that they are a long way from realising their goals and will go through several iterations before the dream of a general purpose humanoid robot available from your local department store is reality. Nonetheless, they say that the first versions will be walking in their labs before the end of April this year (2023).
This is relevant to the logistics sector as their target market for initial deployment is the warehouse, factory, fulfilment centres and some retail distribution operations. These markets suffer from chronic labour shortages in many countries. Sales into this market are seen as a route to short term revenue generation as many companies will already have experience of using robotics technologies and have internal mechanisms for operations, maintenance and support.
Figure are not the first company to pursue this idea and they will certainly not be the last. But they have articulated a sensible proposition and seem to have established a team with the right ingredients of experience, realism, a successful track record of making stuff and crucially, funding.
The foundational technologies will continue to improve, as will the machine intelligence and operating systems. Just look at the incredible pace of development in generative AI since the first version of ChatGPT was announced last autumn. Looking at their website and the open positions for employees and engineers, it looks like an exciting opportunity “to try and change the world.”
It will be interesting to see how this develops.
Tech news in brief
Google’s cloud platform supports supply chain operations
Along with the announcements from Microsoft and Amazon’s AWS, Google has now started to highlight how its cloud platform now provides services and tools to support advanced supply chain operations. It’s clear that these tech giants are now starting to focus on the logistics sector to unlock a potentially huge revenue stream, as well as a rich environment for data collection. This could present a considerable challenge to specialised supply chain application vendors, who will struggle to justify outdated technologies and business models based on licensing.
Ken’s top read
Interesting article from McKinsey suggesting alternatives to the old and outdated (and very expensive) ERP platforms operated by many enterprises. Some of them have been highlighted in previous briefs by Ti.
Author: Ken Lyon
Source: Ti Insights