shipping robotThink Logistics, a Canadian-based third party provider of supply chain products saw the handwriting on the wall a while back. Its parent company was a successful optical disk manufacturer for years, but as the industry has become heavily focused on digital and downloads, the future of optical became uncertain and it needed to find a way to stay relevant.
Although logistics is not an automated process, especially in Canada, Think Logistics believed there had to be a way to change that. The way to gaining that competitive edge in processing orders, Think Logistics believed, was through robotics. It found Kiva Systems, a provider of automated material handling systems, at a trade show and felt Kiva had the flexibility they were looking for to handle lots of different product types.

The Kiva robotic fulfillment system is being used at Think Logistics' 124,000 square foot facility, where 15 bright orange robotic drive units are assigned multiple tasks such as picking up a shelf unit known as an "Inventory Pod," and traveling to another section of the warehouse to bring to a person receiving inventory.

If one robot has a mechanical issue, another unit is reassigned the task.

The fulfillment system was launched in July 2012. Prior to everything was done manually and workers used static shelving and pallet racking systems for storage. Think Logistics did not lay off any of its workers when it brought Kiva in – the company says they're actually more efficient now since they don't have to do any walking. The system brings the shelf with the products to ship right to them.

Think Logistics also expects to see a return on its investment, which was somewhere between $1 million and $2 million for the 15 units, in two years' time.

Philips Electronics has also jumped on the robot bandwagon for assembly of its electric razors in the Netherlands, thanks to the increasing sophistication and reduced costs in robots. But the question becomes, will a significant number of jobs be lost as robots gain acceptance in the supply chain?

Like Think Logistics, K'NEX, which is using robots named Baxter to pack toy parts more efficiently and in the way the customer needs them, says no. CEO and President Michael Araten says robots should be used to free up people to focus on creation, while saving companies money and reducing the need for offshore labor. In fact, Aratan says they have increased staff about 25 percent in the past four years.

Rethink Robotics, maker of Baxter, claims that robots are taking over repetitive tasks people don't want to do, and they can instead move to work in other aspects of the supply chain, like logistics and shipping.

Of course it would be nice to think that as we take mundane tasks out of the hands of humans who are prone to error and inefficiencies there won't be a significant decline in jobs inside the supply chain as use of robots continues to gain momentum. But what a handful of companies are doing in terms of shifting workers elsewhere sadly, may not be the norm.

There is one hopeful sign: Baxter is made in the U.S.
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