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The Next Frontier for Robots: Picking


Friday August 4, 2017

Warehouse automation systems have been around for a long time, but one task has eluded robots: picking. But that is about to change. The Wall Street Journal reports that robot developers, spurred by the growth in e-commerce, are working on robot systems that can retrieve items off shelves and pack them for shipping.

“Several companies, including Saks Fifth Avenue owner Hudson’s Bay Co. and Chinese online-retail giant Inc., have recently begun testing robotic ‘pickers’ in their distribution centers,” Brian Baskin writes. “Some robotics companies say their machines can move gadgets, toys and consumer products 50 percent faster than human workers.” 

An enormous growth in online sales is making it hard for retailers and logistics companies to meet demand. The newspaper reports U.S. e-commerce revenues equaled $390 billion in 2016, which is twice as much as it was in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In developing countries, such as China and India, online sales are growing even faster.

Relatedly, employment in this sector also is growing exponentially. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 262,000 warehouse jobs were added throughout the last five years. The segment now employs almost 950,000 workers.

“Picking is the biggest labor cost in most e-commerce distribution centers, and among the least automated,” Baskin writes. He cites Marc Wulfraat, president of MWPVL International, who suggests that replacing workers with robots could decrease labor costs by one-fifth. However, because of the high level of e-commerce demand, experts don’t expect picking robots to cause massive layoffs.

Although the task of picking seems simple, robots need to be taught to properly identify each product. This involves compiling enormous databases of 3D-rendered objects that guide robots in finding and properly gripping the needed items. Well-known automation companies, such as KUKA and Honeywell’s Intelligrated unit, and even some non-traditional players are working to advance technology to help robots achieve this skill.

One example comes from, which is developing its own robots. In April, the e-commerce giant started testing them at one distribution center in Shanghai, where it aims to implement a fully automated warehouse by the end of 2018, says Hui Cheng,’s head of robotics research center, in the article.

Getting it right

The phenomenal growth in e-commerce has changed warehousing and distribution forever. This Wall Street Journal article focuses on only one aspect, picking, but it demonstrates the evolution of supply chain. Let’s consider one definition of picking from the APICS Dictionary: “In distribution, the process of withdrawing goods from stock to ship to a distribution warehouse or to a customer.” 

As The Wall Street Journal article outlines, picking technology could strongly benefit e-commerce companies, especially as the segment continues to grow in terms of volume and capabilities.

We at APICS are thrilled to be partnering with, China’s largest e-commerce company by revenue and one of the leaders mentioned in the article. APICS and have announced a strategic agreement to establish nationwide standards for the Omni Channel Supply Chain Capability in China and to advance e-commerce supply chain performance in the region. Part of the agreement includes a collaboration cross-referencing the Supply Chain Operations Reference (SCOR) model with the extensive database in order to develop a specific SCORmark Omni Channel Benchmark for China.

To learn more about how APICS and SCOR might help your business, visit
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  1. Amir January 23, 2018, 06:18 AM
    Nice post
  2. Pamela November 17, 2017, 04:06 PM
    This idea of robot developers is very interesting because it is very helpful for several companies, to be able to work on these ideas it is necessary to have a broad knowledge about the subject and the University "Politecnica Salesiana" offer the career of Mecatronica Engineering which can be very helpful for people who have interest in this area, I invite you to enter the following link: [link removed] here you can find a brief information about the race
  3. Androidrobo November 07, 2017, 06:39 AM
    This includes enormous databases of objects provided by 3D that guide robots to detect and collect the necessary items.
  4. My Robostation November 02, 2017, 01:22 AM
    Retailers and logistics companies are difficult to meet. In developing countries such as China and India, online sales are growing fast.
  5. Hob Wubbena September 20, 2017, 05:09 PM

    To your point, our company - Universal Logic Inc. - has been shipping a AI-based robot cell for a year that provides order fulfillment piece picking for tens of thousands of SKUs.  Everything - robot, sensors, etc. is mounted on a skid and can be set into place and operational in a day.  Operating cost is $7/hour, with typical backup in less than 12 months. The product family are called Neocortex G2R (Goods to Robot) Cells. 
    [External link removed.]

  6. Androidrobo September 02, 2017, 06:12 AM

    I haven’t any idea about Thinking supply chain. But, right after reading this post, I just have a clear view about Thinking supply chain. Thanks for sharing this article.

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