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Articulated robots are not new; they’ve been used in automotive assembly plants since the 1970s. For the air cargo industry, however, they represent a major shift towards a more automated and sophisticated future. But why has the industry taken so long to implement robotics? It boils down to need. Air cargo is growing into a more complicated and time-sensitive market. As such, robotics give us the ability to streamline and elevate the industry to keep up with demand.

To understand this next big leap in air cargo, we have to look at two things. First, the cause for the rise in air cargo demand. Secondly, we have to examine the recent developments in warehouse robotics intelligence.  

The Growing Need for Air Cargo

A 2016 survey by comScore and UPS found that consumers do over half of their shopping online. This represents a 3% and 4% increase from 2015 and 2014, respectively. In another study published by UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), shoppers spent about £1 billion a week with online UK retailers in February 2017––a 20.7% increase compared to the same month last year.

The rise in online shopping, coupled with companies like Amazon and Walmart promoting free 2-day shipping, has led to a surge in demand for lightning fast delivery turnaround times (even when they’re free). A recent survey revealed that while consumers are willing to wait a few days if you promise free shipping, they won’t wait for long. Only 2.5% value fast shipping more than free shipping and about 47% want both.

It’s no surprise that warehouse labor is on the rise; in the last five years, 262,000 new workers joined the force, bringing the new total to nearly one million. But still, the workforce is not sustainable nor efficient enough to meet the surging order rate.

So, how do you cater to this growing demand? Implementing robotics across the air cargo supply chain is a good start.

Robotics - A Growing Field

To stay in the intensifying race, retailers are aiming to reduce the click-to-ship time to 15 minutes. It sounds impossible, until you factor in robotics. Retailers are embracing this reality. Large manual operations are looking into DCs that use robotic systems, while organizations that use paper pick lists are looking to automate.

And the interest is growing. Research and Markets recently published a report showing that warehousing and logistics robots sales reached $1.9 billion worldwide in 2016. This market is expected to hit $22.4 billion by 2021. In a separate report, Tractica predicts that shipments made by warehousing and logistic robots will rise by 580,000 units by 2021, up from 40,000 units in 2016. With the current trend, robotics will soon become the number one differentiator for online retail businesses that are looking to win in cost-to-serve and fast delivery.

Increasing “Intelligence” with Robotics

Perhaps most impressive is the ability of robots to deal with complications across the supply chain. For instance, retailers who need to ensure “friendly sequencing” are quickly learning the importance of mixed case palletizing and roll-cage building. In response to this need, companies are developing shuttle-based systems that work by delivering full cases of product in a streamlined sequence to robots. Then, the robots place the products in mixed cases, like pallets or roll-cages. The whole system is fast and intelligent, and can consistently pass along the product, in the same sequence. This streamlines palletizing and roll-cage building in a smart, automated way.

The process of loading and unloading irregular parcels has long been a challenge in robotics. But now, advanced robots have greater mobility, thanks to gyroscopes and mapping technologies. This allows them to easily recognize shipments by size and description and move them to their appropriate locations. They are so reliable that soon that they will soon be integrated into mainstream shipping technology. 

There are even company-sponsored contests such as Amazon’s, inspiring inventors to develop robots who can distinguish between packages in warehouses. Picking a single item from stock totes to order totes is still one of the greatest challenges facing the industry today. One of the winning robots overcame this system by utilizing Cartesian coordinate grid system and a hybrid suction-cup-finger grabbing system. While we’re not there quite yet, the fact that we have robots who can differentiate between individual items surely is a leap forward.

Robotics - No Longer Sci-Fi

Robots are no longer an ambitious endeavor only understood by few in the tech industry. They are here and changing our lives in ways we couldn't imagine. And they're not even close to reaching their full potential. 

Robotics has become a viable solution in air cargo with the growing advancement in AI. Now robots are much more cost-effective and accurate. They can quickly identify items, verify, pick them up, and place them according to order. This is helping solve some of the industry’s most complex issues.

As contemporary warehouses implement more robotics, we can’t wait to see how technology will continue to grow the field of air cargo.

Read more on how air cargo carriers address customer demand for faster last mile delivery times.

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