Mobile robotics in material handling and logistics will become a $75 billion market by 2027. It will then more than double by 2038. These staggering headline figures mask turbulent transformative change underneath: some technologies will rise and transform the fortunes of industries, fuelling growth rates far outpacing recent trends, whilst others will face with decay and obsolescence. We are at the beginning of the beginning of a transformative change, and the time for mobile robots to plan is now.
So claims the IDTechEx Research report Mobile Robots & Drones in Material Handling & Logistics 2017-2037. It considers automated guided vehicles and carts (AGVs and AGCs); autonomous mobile vehicles and carts/units; mobile picking robots; last mile delivery ground robots (droids) and drones; and autonomous trucks and light delivery vans (level 4 and level 5 automation).
AGVs are a mature technology that can safely transport payloads ranging from several kilograms to many tonnes, essentially acting as semi-rigid distributor conveyer belts covering large areas. Their navigation technology is evolving. Today multiple options are available ranging from the low-cost wire or magnetic tape guidance to the increasingly popular laser guidance. All however requires follow rigid guide points, thus requiring some degree of infrastructure modification and extended onsite installation. This industry is showing healthy, albeit small, grow rates.
This gives an illusion of security to this mature high-fragmented business where price competition is rise. The next generation navigation technology- infrastructure-independent flexible autonomy- has the potential to shatter this illusion. This new technology, whilst appearing just as the next natural step in navigation technology evolution, requires a wholescale change in the software side of the robots, giving an opportunity to new challengers to enter and to fully redraw the competitive landscape.
Forklifts will never be the same?
Navigational autonomy will induce a colossal transfer of value from wage bills paid for human-provided driving services towards spend on autonomous industrial vehicles. This change will not happen overnight, although much earlier than mobile autonomy in general driving, since the structured and controlled environment of indoor industrial facilities lends itself better to automation.
The model suggests that autonomous forklifts, for example, will remain a tiny share of the global addressable market until around 2023, but will soon after enter the rapid growth phase, causing a transformation of the industry and dramatically raising adoption levels to as high as 70% by 2038.
Last mile delivery
Last mile delivery remains an expensive affair in the parcel delivery business, often representing more than half of the total cost. Its importance is also growing thanks to a change in the composition of total deliveries with B2C deliveries rapidly taking on a bigger share. E-commerce companies are also pushing next-day and now same-day services hoping to take away that last stronghold of bricks-and-mortar shops: instant customer fulfilment.
Autonomous mobile delivery robots are currently small slow-moving units that will need to return to base to charge. They often need close supervision and can only operate in sparsely-populated and highly-structured environments such as university campuses or special neighbourhood. They therefore are unproductive and easy to dismiss as gimmicks.
This is however only the beginning of the beginning. The cost projections in the report suggest that these mobile robots can indeed become low-cost. The robots are now in the trial and learning phase, gathering more data and optimising the navigational algorithms. They will become increasingly more adept at path planning, even when GPS signals fail, and at object avoidance. The increased autonomous mobility capability will in turn enable a lower operator-to-fleet-size ratio, furthering boosting overall fleet productivity.
Drone delivery faces critical challenges. Individual drones offer limited productivity compared to traditional means of delivery. They can only carry small payloads and battery technology limits their flight duration, constraining them to around 30min radius of their base whilst further lowering their productivity due to the downtime needed for re-charging/re-loading. Safety is a potential showstopper with many accidents waiting to happen.
However, the technology has long-term future, particularly within the context of the bigger trend to automate as much as of the logistic chain as possible.
Mobile Robots & Drones in Material Handling & Logistics 2017-2037