Will autonomous vehicles cruise the factories of tomorrow?
GE and Caterpillar have joined forces by investing in Clearpath Robotics, a startup focused on bringing self-driving vehicles to the factory floor.
This startup, which has been around since its founding out of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, CA, has been focused on research and development of robots that transport materials, pallets, and other items from one area of a warehouse or factory to another.
What would typically require a forklift operator to drive across the factory floor, an often timely activity, can be carried out through autonomous vehicles with a smaller footprint than a forklift and no need for overtime pay or lunch breaks.
BMW uses autonomous vehicles in its factories to deliver parts to workers as they need them. This strategy is likely on the minds of GE’s management as they invest in another autonomous vehicle maker. It enables the manufacturing floor to become inherently less chaotic and cluttered. Parts are delivered as-needed by vehicles that are self-guided and able to navigate the floor with ease.
Caterpillar following Amazon
Amazon, the largest online retailer in the world, utilizes fleets of robots in its fulfillment centers. These robots speed under shelving units filled with product, finding the one unit that has what the purchaser has ordered, and delivers it to a packer that picks the product off the shelf and places it in a box before sending it on its way.
In fact, Amazon has an entire subsidiary dedicated to research and development of robots that will assist Amazon in speeding up fulfillment and improving efficiency across its business.
Amazon is also developing drones that will, one day, deliver small packages directly to customers’ front doors from the fulfillment center. This is a move that not only could save Amazon on shipping costs, but greatly speed the time to delivery for small, lightweight items.
Also in the delivery side, startups such as Dispatch are already coming up with autonomous vehicles that securely deliver packages to recipients on the ground. It’s small, sidewalk-rolling vehicles have multiple locked compartments that can be opened by the recipient – enabling it to make multiple deliveries in a single run before returning to base to recharge and restock.
These autonomous vehicles are already finding their way into warehouses around the world. Humans, which haven’t been totally taken out of the logistics and manufacturing business, are finding themselves in a more administrative role with their new robotic coworkers.
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