Automation and robotics are hot topics in the e-commerce world, and with good reason given the challenges of competing with Amazon and its promise of one-day order delivery. And while the words are often used interchangeably, there are some important distinctions between the two that you should understand when evaluating systems designed to speed up your fulfillment operations.
A common definition of automation is the use of technology to perform a task or procedure without the assistance of a person, such as programming a control panel to turn lights on or off at specific times or to adjust the temperature in a building during peak working hours.
In factories and warehouses, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been moving heavy loads such as stacks of pallets, rolls of paper, and auto parts from one location to another for decades, traveling along predetermined routes designed to keep workers safe.
And in the fulfillment space, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are a mainstay. These are large carousels or lattices where goods are stored that use shuttles and conveyors move items to picking and packing stations.
Automation can also take the form of software applications designed to carry out the tedious tasks that people often get stuck doing—like transferring calls to the proper department or filling in form fields to speed order processing. This type of automation is known as robotic process automation—or RPA—and it’s one of the fastest-growing segments of business technology today.
What all these forms of automation have in common is that the technology in use (either machine or application-based) is performing a specific procedure or set of tasks that it was programmed to carry out repeatedly. Any change in the tasks or the operating environment typically requires a new set of instructions.
Robotics is a branch of engineering and science that deals with the design, construction, and operation of robots—which are machines capable of carrying out a complex series of actions—as well as the computer systems for their control, sensory feedback and information processing.
Robotics and automation overlap on many levels and robots have been used to automate repetitive or dangerous tasks in large industrial settings for more than half a century. But thanks to recent advancements in the field, robots have evolved from automated machines to autonomous machines that are capable of navigating dynamic environments and learning how to carry out tasks more efficiently over time without human intervention.
It’s that autonomy breakthrough that allowed robots to come out of their safety cages and off their magnetically-guided paths and move more freely around the factory or warehouse, taking on more and more complex, repetitive or time-consuming tasks.
Why Does it Matter?
Any e-commerce business would benefit from some level of automation or robotics, and understanding the capabilities of each allows you to make informed decisions.
A small startup, for example, would benefit from automating order processing, inventory, and shipping updates while a large third-party logistics provider would want to deploy a fleet of autonomous mobile robots to increase throughput ahead of the holiday shopping season. And yet both businesses want to keep costs under control.
Wherever your company ranks on that scale, there’s a solution that’s right for you. To learn more about how inVia Robotics’ can help your business run faster and smarter, contact our sales team today.