Over the past several years, a new generation of robotics has emerged, enabling a broader and more diverse use of robots. The technology is being deployed in areas outside of traditional manufacturing environments, such as warehousing, fulfillment centers, hospitals, retail stores and even in the surgical operating room. As the emergence of smart, collaborative and mobile robots leads to their proliferation across industries and business processes, it also forces organization leaders to think about how to create alignment.
Robots are tools, but some must be looked at from the perspective of labor. Just as pickers and packers in a fulfillment center wouldn’t be expected to operate without alignment between their role and the operational information technology (IT) systems, the same is true for certain robots — especially autonomous mobile robots, which are increasingly being tasked with the movement of materials within a facility. These devices are not just aimlessly driving around; they take direction from a warehouse management system (WMS) or order management system and use onboard intelligence to navigate to a destination in the most efficient way.
It’s true that some robots can operate without integration and still deliver value. Yet, it is nevertheless highly recommended to devise a plan for integration to maximize the benefit.
New tools on the horizon
As organizations increase their use of robotics in new business processes, it becomes important that application vendors create an easy path toward integration. Companies building software applications such as WMS, warehouse control systems, order management systems, labor management systems and even enterprise resources planning systems must be thinking about how they can develop applications that account for a robotics-enabled environment.
This point goes well beyond making it easy to integrate robotics into the IT architecture. Business applications should account for robotics-enabled business processes in many different areas:
- Compatibility: Application vendors would be wise to simplify how robots are integrated with business processes. This is a critical success factor for any business that deploys robots. Vendors must think about and act on the role of robotics in business processes to ensure that they remain viable in the market. Forward-looking buyers will continue to seek ways to deploy modern technology and enable modern business processes. In the end, buyers will naturally gravitate toward those vendors that are better positioned to incorporate robotic technology.
- Robotic application design: Companies are looking at robots to drive business performance. This does not mean that the sole responsibility for developing robot-driven business applications resides with robot manufacturers. In fact, there are examples of robotic applications that have been developed by software companies seeking to drive new ways of working for their clients. One example of such innovation is ongoing within JDA Software Group. JDA’s software focuses on enabling planning and execution across the end-to-end supply chain. However, the vendor has developed a tool specifically for use with SoftBank Robotics’ humanoid robot, Pepper. Pepper can recognize the principal human emotions and adapts its behavior to people’s moods. The JDA application enables Pepper to engage with customers in-store, with a tie back to inventory management.
- The internet of things (IOT), analytics and data management: Companies want to capitalize on the vast amounts of business-relevant data being produced by their assets, customers, connected products and every other source. All of this data has business relevance in some way or another, so leading application vendors are working to enable their customers to aggregate, analyze, draw insight from and act upon this information. Considering the fact that robots are another connected asset, it would make sense for application vendors to enable robot users to capture and manage their data. For some, this means building an IOT data aggregation platform with embedded analytics. For others, it could be creating IOT data-driven applications. Either way, robots are connected things that are generating tremendously valuable information about the businesses and processes where they are deployed.
The prospect of partnering with robotics vendors has not gone unnoticed by several application providers. Within weeks of each other, both JDA and Manhattan Associates made announcements about strategic partnerships with different robotics vendors. JDA has partnered with Locus Robotics; and at its Momentum customer conference, Manhattan announced that it partnered with Kindred’s SORT, an AI-enabled, batch-picking robot, in order to embed warehouse execution within its WMS application. This relationship aligns with Manhattan’s strategy for enabling orchestrated work involving both man and machine, something that will be increasingly important to the future of warehouse operations.
Whereas SAP has a similar relationship with Fetch Robotics, HighJump has taken a different approach. Company executives believe that it is important to work with several high-potential vendors; thus, they are building out their own robotics-related ecosystem through partner integrators.
As is evident by this range of relationships, different solution providers take different approaches to robotics. Indeed, an increase in activity in this space is expected, especially because robotic technology has a direct implication for modern organizations operating their businesses. Furthermore, business application vendors will continue to innovate their offerings to meet the needs of customers increasingly pursuing the potential of robotics.
With the exception of the relationship between Manhattan Associates and Kindred, most of the current relationships involving supply chain execution revolve around autonomous mobile robots. The partnerships with autonomous mobile robots and application vendors seem obvious, given that those with supply chain execution products and such robotics vendors are working in the same spaces. Companies using robotics in their fulfillment and warehouse operations processes also are using WMS. These partnerships will continue to emerge.
There still are opportunities for software and robotics vendors to partner, especially for the picking process. Plus, as more fulfillment centers focus on delivering eaches, demand to automate the picking process also will increase.
This is a complex problem to solve. Several vendors, though, are taking on this challenge and have robotic arms and work cells built specifically to enable autonomous picking. RightHand Robotics and Kindred are leveraging AI to enable robots to handle new material. Both are engaging in AI-enabled robotic picking, and both are effective in different picking environments. Soft Robotics also offers a robotic-arm-enabled picking cell, but it is a bit different because the company does not leverage AI. Instead, the business is building flexible gripping technology using material science.
Traditionally, picking processes have been driven by software applications directing a human. As robotics increasingly take on these tasks, those software vendors that are in the market for directing workflows are likely to take notice. Not only do integrations drive action by the robots, but they also enable an organization to create a digital alignment between physical process execution and the business system architecture. As the market for commercial service and collaborative robots continues to grow and application vendors see their clients using such technology, these partnerships will no doubt amplify.
Today, the onus of creating integration rests largely on the systems integrators and robotics vendors themselves. While this model works and helps ensure that buyers of robots can get the technology they need, the application vendor community must strengthen its position relative to robots — particularly as the technology takes on more manual tasks traditionally managed by software applications.
Furthermore, the data being generated by robots in business is incredibly valuable. Application vendors recognize this and, in addition to creating integration between robots and their applications, are working to capitalize on the value of that data. This is not to say that application vendors will specifically seek to monetize the data; rather, they will look to create applications that find alignment across organizations’ application architecture and deliver valuable insights. In the future, it will not be surprising to find application vendors that are building out sellable modules or features designed specifically around the use of robots aligned to their business applications.
John Santagate is a research director at IDC, responsible for the service robotics market. His research looks across industries and seeks to deliver actionable intelligence to organizations around the deployment and use of robotics, as well as related technology areas that are helping to enable wide spread adoption of robotic technology. Santagate may be contacted at email@example.com.