In this week’s Logistics Insights podcast, Gartner’s categorization of distribution robots. 

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At the recent Gartner supply chain symposium in Orlando, analyst Dwight Klappich, who follows Warehouse Management Systems and related technologies for the research company, said the number 1 topic he now gets for client inquiries is around robots for distribution.

Interest, he said, is very high – and for not the usual reason. He cited a recent Gartner survey found that for about two-thirds of companies interested in robotics, the driver for doing so now is to combat labor shortages, not to drive cost reduction, which is very different than just a few years ago. 


Gartner has categorized these robots into seven types:


  • Augmented manual picking robots: This category is for machines such as robotic pallet jacks that follow case pickers around, so they don't have to get on and off the trucks. The robots then take the completed picked pallet off to stretch wrapping or staging.


  • Collaborative picking robots: The category probably gaining the most press, these are robots that come to piece pickers who just have to travel a little to add picks to the mobile robot, which then moves on to the next picker near a SKU for orders on the mobile bot, etc. until the orders are complete and the robots take them to packing.


  • Transport robots: Machines that simply move goods from point A to point B. Think robotic automated guided vehicles for moving pallets, others to move cartons, etc. Robotic "tuggers" are also in this category.


  • Goods-to person robots: Invented really by Kiva Systems, acquired by Amazon in 2012, these robots bring shelves of goods to stationary pickers, who select SKUs for cartons or totes at each of these stations that are on another structure, which is then taken away by robot when all the orders on it are complete. New inventory shelves for picking keeps arriving at the stations.


  • Robotic piece-picking robots: Generally some type of robotic arm that can grasp or use a vacuum device to select items and then generally drop them in cartons or totes. 


  • Engineered robotic systems: In general, grid like structures that allow very dense storage of inventory, with robots that grab or totes or trays and deliver them to picking stations just outside the grid structure.


  • Sortation robots: An alternative to traditional conveyor-based sortation, more specifically tilt tray sorters, these systems move across a structure, and after pickers put SKUs in the little robot's tray, it delivers the pick to a shipping carton or tote, tilts to slide the product in, and moves on via the control system for another pick.


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