Goods-To-Robot Picking: Coming Soon To Your DC?

Back in 1963, Johnny Cash recorded a tale of American Folklore called The Legend Of John Henry’s Hammer. The song analogized the demise of human labor at the hands of the industrial revolution by telling the story of a “steel driving man” on the railroad who gave his life to prove his worth against a steam-powered hammer.

If the exhibition of automation and, more specifically, robotic automation, on display at the Modex 2016 show in Atlanta last Spring was any indication, the thematic elements of tall tales about John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, are poised to play themselves out all over again. At the show, several vendors of so-called “mobile autonomous” robotic picking technologies, which don’t require any proprietary infrastructure for robots to navigate the DC, threatens to someday displace certain human DC workers, were scattered across the show floor.

While there’s no question that robots will continue to advance and play more prominent roles in the modern DC, the current capabilities of entirely autonomous robots are somewhat limiting as compared to a combination of robotic automation and human interaction. In goods-to-person picking environments, robotic automation has already proven its ability to dramatically increase throughput while improving picking accuracy. But as engineers the world over work feverishly to develop fully autonomous picking robots for retail DCs, they’re facing a number of obstacles.

Just last year, e-commerce juggernaut Amazon launched its first-ever Amazon Picking Challenge (APC) contest, where robotics engineers competed for a $25,000 prize awarded to whoever designed the fastest, most accurate picking bot. The results of that contest illustrate how much more work engineers have ahead of them. The APC exercise demonstrated that a human can accurately sort about 400 items per hour. By comparison, even the best robot competing in the APC was only capable of 30 sorts per hour—with a 16 percent failure rate. What’s more, the robots participating in the challenge were given the relatively simple task of picking from just 25 items, as compared to the hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of items presented in large retail distribution center environments.


While a fully robotic DC that runs without human intervention doesn’t yet appear on the horizon, the integration of select automation and human associates is proving its value. The robotics-enabled Perfect Pick goods-to-person technology developed by OPEX is exemplary of that balance. At computer component and electronics retailer Newegg, for instance, DC associates were picking 200 items per hour using a manual pick module. After implementing the Perfect Pick robotic goods-to-person solution, which delivers totes containing inventory directly to the worker via iBOTs, the merchant was able to double their order output– and with a fraction of the labor required in the pick module.

Pressured by consumer demand for speedy order fulfillment, merchants of all shapes and sizes have joined the robotic goods-to-person picking revolution in their retail warehouses and distribution centers. As throughput increases in goods-to-person picking environments, automation allows workers to be redeployed to other areas in the warehouse. Even the ever-inventing Amazon continues to employ some 220,000 associates, primarily in its warehouses and DCs. At the current pace of advancement, we won’t see the humans assigned to picking operations in your DC go the way of the legendary steel driver John Henry just yet. Instead, they’ll simply get better and more efficient—with a little help from their robotic associates.

Our team of project managers, engineers, and analysts can assist and support you through your DC automation evaluation and implementation process from start to finish. Contact us today via phone (+1 856.727.1100) or online to learn more

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