Warehouse and logistics robots will be a $30 billion dollar industry by 2022, according to American analysts, who forecast the current $8.3 billion of worldwide revenue from the the technology will more than triple over the next three years.

Locally, Gartner says the expected automation boom is the result of artificial intelligence providing automated processes with the flexibility and scalability to make it more viable and realistic for new industries, including retail.

Indeed several organisations have already made moves and significant investments in automation. And at the bleeding edge, ecommerce giants have, in some instances, replaced virtually all warehouse staff with robots which can autonomously fulfil orders.

Chinese online retailer JD.com, for example, now operates a 40,000-sq-m warehouse relying mainly on just five robots, using industry leading technology.

But by 2022 there will be nearly one million total warehouse and logistic robots, as companies upgrade fixed infrastructure to more flexible and scalable robotic solutions, according to forecasts by Tractica, a Colorado based market research firm, part of the publishing giant Informal.

The figures come from Tractica’s latest Warehousing and Logistics Robots report which includes research form a variety of industry sources, supplemented by market research.

According to the report, “Proven solutions and high-profile case studies showing a rapid return on investment, as well as tremendous growth in ecommerce, while third-party logistics, labor shortages, and vigorous competition are driving strong demand globally.”

“The warehousing and logistics robot market is experiencing strong growth, and supply chains are being transformed as companies replace fixed infrastructure and outdated processes with flexible, scalable robotic solutions to meet the changing demands of modern commerce,” says senior analyst and report co-author Glenn Sanders.

However, the rapid growth will slow around 2022, the report says, as warehouse robots become the norm for larger organisations and the market settles. The analysts are urging organisations do their due diligence on often substantial robotics investments.

Unlocking automation with AI

The expected boom of automation is being driven by emerging technology which has matured to a point where it is now viable outside of its traditional controlled environments, according to Gartner analyst Thomas O’Connor.

“What’s actually enabling a lot of the automation, when you look under the covers of it, is the advancement being made in terms of artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep neural networks —these sorts of capabilities,” O’Connor told Which-50.

“That’s actually enabling a lot of the advancements.”

The robotic part of automation technology has existed for some time. The difference now for industries like retail, O’Connor says, is the increased flexibility offered by advanced software.

For example, retailers housing large amounts of stock have traditionally struggled with automation because its rigidity has meant a limited number of use cases. While that is not necessarily a problem in an industry like manufacturing where production lines are common, retailers need more flexibility. Something AI is now providing, O’Connor says.

“Whilst it sounds really cool and it sounds really robotic driven, it’s actually driven by AI computer vision: the ability to rapidly assess and utilise vision to determine ‘ok, I am reading this, this is what I’m looking for, ok there’s the item and it’s not perfectly positioned’. It’s something which they are then able to reach out and pick up the item, specifically.”

O’Connor expects the warehouse robotics boom will produce a more augmented environment for human workers in warehouses rather than their displacement. And with the majority of retail workers being in storefronts, their jobs remain relatively safe too, he said.

“A lot of the warehousing efforts that are being put forward are more around augmenting the existing human workforce than totally doing away with the workforce.”

“The reality is for many instances there is still the need for people. But they can be more efficiently deployed and allows for greater scale. So that’s where we see the point of difference a lot of the time, it’s more around augmentation than totally doing away with the human workforce.”

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