On the Amazon Robotics Challenge, Warehouse Automation and Expired Oatmega Bars

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Recently I was on the phone with a Target customer service supervisor, explaining that for the third time in a row, the Oatmega nutrition bars I ordered online had arrived past their expiration dates. If you haven’t heard of Oatmega bars, their nutritional content is thoroughly impressive, and the taste is pretty good, too (after all, it took three shipments of expired bars for me to stop buying them). But there’s one catch.

The bars become progressively harder to bite into as the expiration date approaches. They also contain fish oil, so the bars also taste progressively fishier. If you’re someone who isn’t fastidious on expiration dates, you can force yourself to eat the bars — as I tried — but then you risk breaking a tooth. This is one case where the expiration date allows no wiggle room.

And so I was explaining all of this to the supervisor, who blamed it on the warehouses’ robots.

Expired food lingering on store shelves is not a new phenomenon, so it’s not exactly fair to fault the robots. At first I had a mental image of robots whizzing from shelf to shelf in the Target warehouse, picking and packing items and forgetting to check expiration dates — a classic example of anthropomorphism.

When we shop online, all we see is the website user interface and then the packaged item (in the case of Target, lightly crushed). With all of the recent headlines about Amazon, Target and other big retailers introducing robots into their fulfillment centers, what is actually happening in the warehouse? Are robots putting our orders into packages? As it turns out, the technology still has a ways to go before we can have fully autonomous robots as warehouse workers.

Dr. Martial Hebert, a computer science professor who heads the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, says that simple fulfillment center duties — that is, transporting and packing objects — still represents a challenging robotics problem.

“[Robots need to have] the ability to manipulate objects, to grasp them,” Hebert says, “Objects [differ] in shapes and sizes. Objects are going to be fragile.”

Humans instinctively know how to grasp something based on its size, weight, shape and material, characteristics that we can distinguish simply by looking at the object. We know not to pick up a bag of chips with the same grip that we would use for a five-pound dumbbell. Or we might pick up the bag of chips by the corner, so as not to crush its contents.

While this kind of knowledge comes naturally to humans, it poses a two-part problem for robots, which must be programmed to recognize objects (or possess “vision”) and pick them up appropriately.

“Basically, [it is] being able to deal with the wide diversity of objects and materials,” Hebert says. “We’re doing pretty well at recognizing objects. When I said we’re doing pretty well, that suggests that we’re not doing perfect, and so we see again a ways to go before we get to a level of reliability and performance that is high enough for fulfillment [center purposes].”

Even Amazon, which has been using cutting-edge robots in its warehouses since 2014, still relies on human workers to take items off of shelves and pack them, as Wired reports. Amazon Robotics, a subsidiary company of the e-commerce giant, recently held its third annual Amazon Robotics Challenge, where robots designed by 16 teams around the world competed in identifying various objects, picking them up, moving them and stowing them.

These items ran the gamut from scissors to books to wine glasses. Points were added for speed and deducted for damage to the product. An Australian team from the Queensland University of Technology ended up winning the Grand Championship Combined Task, which involved both picking and stowing.

Source: Amazon Robotics

Reliable and speedy order fulfillment is part of what has made Amazon so successful. An autonomous robot workforce can further speed up this process and cut down on labor costs. So it’s no wonder Amazon Robotics states that its goal is to “strengthen the ties between the industrial and academic robotic communities.” Hebert says that a “sizable number” of Carnegie’s robotics students join the corporate world after graduation.

Even if you can develop a state-of-the-art robot, adapting it for commercial use is a different matter. This past June, Alphabet Inc. announced that it was selling Boston Dynamics, the maker of those breathtakingly agile humanoid robots. As cool as it is that a robot can move through snow and clear four-feet hurdles, what exactly are you supposed to do with it?

“This is definitely the issue when you look at highly experimental robot types,” says Hebert, who explains that a fulfillment center robot will be much lower-cost and mass-producible. And the wholesale replacement of human warehouse workers by autonomous robots is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“The more interesting thing will be to see how robots can work with human workers,” Hebert says. “I think that there will always be operations that are specifically for human workers. There's a level of dexterity, there's a level of decision-making that we have that [will be needed] for a very long time in the foreseeable future.”

“One problem in the current warehouses is that the automation part is often separated from the human part,” he continues. “Robots operate in areas where humans are not usually present, for example. That’s a major limitation. In the future what we hope to see is a matched-out integration and robots moving along with humans in the same workspace.

“That can be done now to some extent, but this is still a very difficult proposition, even in terms of safety concerns, in terms of synchronization, et cetera. That's something that I think will make a huge difference, and that's a trend in much of robotics, to get away from that separation between the automated role on one side and the human role on the other side.”

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Voices (2)

  1. Heather:

    Hi Sydney, so bummed you had a bad experience with the Oatmega bars you ordered online! Oatmega bars shouldn’t taste fishy even if close to expiration but clearly you’ve been having some bad experiences!

    I work on the Oatmega brand and would love to send you some bars that I promise aren’t hard to bite into OR fishy 🙂 If interested, shoot me a note at info@oatmegabar.com and let them know Heather reached out to you.

    Thanks! Heather

  2. CleanMark Labels:

    Really interesting article. The humanoid robots we are seeing more and more in the news are cool, but are probably not very cost effective or reliable for fulfillment purposes right now. It will be fascinating to see which kinds of robots develop in the future that could be the best of both worlds—fulfillment-friendly AND procurement-friendly. Whomever figures that out will be a game changer.

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