Industrial robots and e-commerce: Beyond drone delivery

Denise Castillo April 12, 2017

Why did the robot cross the road? To deliver a pizza.

At least, if it’s one of the London-based Starship Technologies robots being rolled out in Germany and the Netherlands. According to a report by the Boston Consultancy Group, autonomous robots are one of nine technologies driving Industry 4.0, and it’s clear that they’re set to have a big impact on consumer expectations when it comes to order fulfillment.

In this article, we take a closer look at the history of industrial robots, how they’re already being used for e-commerce order fulfillment, and what this means for companies who don’t yet have the resources to set up their own fleet of delivery drones.

History of industrial robots

The first time the term “robot” was used was all the way back in 1921, in a Czech play. The word itself comes from robota, the Czech word for “forced labor.” George Devol, the man who would design the world’s first programmable robot, was already 9 at the time.

Devol went on to found the world’s first robot company, named Unimation, together with Joseph Engelberger. The two went on to collaborate on another pioneering project: creating the world’s first industrial robot. UNIMATE performed spot welding and die casting extraction at a General Motors factory in New Jersey from 1962 onward.

Since then, industrial robotics has continued to develop rapidly. 1974 saw a robotic arm known as the Silver Arm use touch and pressure sensor feedback to perform small-parts assembly. By the 1980s, there was a new robot or robotics company entering the market every month.

Today, robots are well on their way to becoming an utterly unremarkable part of our everyday lives. From household helpers vacuuming our living rooms to ensuring we receive our web store orders on time.

Warehouse robots

When it comes to e-commerce giant Amazon, the future is now. The company currently has a fleet of 30,000 robots working in its warehouses – and the number is set to grow. This is unsurprising, given that after just two years of use the robots managed to cut operating expenses by as much as 20%, according to a note by Deutsche Bank.

warehouse robot cost savings

That’s not all: Deutsche Bank thinks Amazon could save an additional $800 million by deploying warehouse robots across the fulfillment centers that aren’t currently automated. This shouldn’t prove to be much of a challenge for Amazon, however, as the company acquired the robot manufacturer Kiva back in 2012. Today it’s known as Amazon Robotics.

Amazon isn’t the only one making waves when it comes to warehouse robotics and automation, though. According to the Robotics Business Review, many businesses are looking to follow in Amazon’s footsteps.

ERP-integrated robotics

One of those companies is Fetch Robotics, a company that builds mobile manipulators (Fetch) and mobile cargo systems (Freight). Last May, Fetch Robotics and SAP announced a partnership incorporating the SAP Extended Warehouse Management application (SAP EWM) with the Fetch and Freight robots.

This groundbreaking partnership is set to further enhance warehouse efficiency by bolstering the capabilities of SAP EWM with the ability to interact with the physical environment using autonomous warehouse robots. As Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, said in the announcement: “It’s an innovative combination of hardware and software that benefits warehouse operators and their employees.”

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Drone delivery

We’ve seen that Amazon is making waves with warehouse robots, but this isn’t the only way they’re using machines to change the fulfillment game. The company made headlines in 2016, when they made their first drone delivery. According to Amazon’s official Prime Air service page, they’re planning to roll out Prime Air once they have the regulatory support needed to safely realize their vision.

On the same page, they list “Is this science fiction or is this real?” under frequently asked questions. It’s a good question, and Amazon provides an impressive answer: “One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road.”

This seems to be the goal for DHL, too. DHL Parcel announced in September 2016 that they had successfully concluded a three-month test of its third-generation “Parcelcopter,” potentially bringing drone delivery another step closer for e-commerce companies who rely on third parties for parcel pick-up, delivery and returns.

Between January and March of the same year, the Bavarian community of Reit im Winkl was able to try out the specially developed Packstations, dubbed the “Parcelcopter Skyport.” This meant simply inserting any shipments that were due to be sent out into the Skyport, which would then initiate automated shipment and delivery using the Parcelcopter. 130 autonomous loading and offloading cycles were performed during the test.drone delivery trial If (or perhaps we should say when) delivery drones truly take off, they will drastically change the way logistics companies deliver orders to consumers, and therefore also eventually affect the expectations of B2B buyers.

It may well be time for B2B companies to embrace Amazon’s “the future is now” sentiment and start looking at what they can do to stay ahead of the game.

Learn more about the intersection of industry 4.0 and e-commerce

Autonomous robots are just one of the manufacturing industry innovations linked to Industry 4.0 that is helping change the face of e-commerce as we know it. Want to learn more about other advancements from the manufacturing industry that are set to shape the future of e-commerce? Download your free copy of our manufacturing industry report today.

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