The rapid development of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) has given rise to a new type of business model — eCommerce. Buying and selling goods over the internet instead of a brick-and-mortar store is the new norm.

What Place Do Robots Have in the Future of eCommerce?

Martin Banks | Modded

The rapid development of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) has given rise to a new type of business model — eCommerce. Buying and selling goods over the internet instead of a brick-and-mortar store is the new norm. 

Here are some of the key roles automated robots have played and will continue to play in the eCommerce industry for the foreseeable future.


Common Robot Applications

Robots play many crucial roles in various industries — automobiles, food and beverages, electronics, plastics, pharmaceuticals, the list goes on. These sectors rely on a similar pattern of picking, sorting, staging and transporting products to distribution centers. Most businesses use robots for the following applications:

  • Pick-and-placing

  • Packaging

  • Loading/unloading

  • Palletizing/depalletizing

  • Material handling

  • Painting

  • Welding

  • Assembly

  • Inspection

  • Cutting

  • Dispensing

The capabilities of robotics go far beyond the warehouse setting. Robots can also optimize a company’s shipping routes with fleets of autonomous trucks. While they aren’t wholly independent yet, these trucks can still help drivers avoid traffic congestion and travel delays. This technology will be instrumental in reducing supply chain stagnation moving forward.

These applications work toward the same goal of minimizing shipping times and costs. Some companies have experienced a sixfold increase in efficiency by entrusting their daily operations to robots. eCommerce is all about speed and convenience for the customer, and robots are now advanced enough to beat human laborers in both aspects.

Robots are even taking over basic jobs such as sorters or janitorial staff. People walk into a Walmart or grocery store and see a robot cleaning floors or tracking inventories without stopping or making errors. There are many types of robots behind these operations.


Common Types of Robots

When it comes to picking, sorting, staging and transporting goods to consumers, the most impactful robotics technology has been automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS). They can work independently and alongside human employees, depending on the environment.

The AS/RS process begins with a goods-to-order picking system, in which an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) retrieves a product from the warehouse’s inventory and delivers it to an employee for packaging. Many types of AMRs assist with this task, including cranes, shuttles, and carousels that can navigate narrow aisles and handle heavy loads.

The next step is staging orders for fast shipping, which is critical for satisfying online shoppers. They want their orders delivered as soon as possible and the only way to meet that demand is by using a round-the-clock fulfillment process. AS/RS accomplishes this task by constantly processing packages and putting them in a buffer storage system until a shipping window opens.

Manufacturing companies have used industrial and articulated robotic arms for years, but recent developments in machine vision and artificial intelligence have made them more efficient than ever. Each type of robotic arm plays a unique role:

  • Six-axis robots: The most common type of robot is the six-axis arm, which is a great general-use tool because the six joints provide unmatched flexibility. It can work independently or under human supervision.

  • Collaborative robots: As the name suggests, these robots are designed to work alongside humans for safety and efficiency purposes. The four categories of collaborative robots are safety monitoring, hand guiding, speed/separation monitoring and power/force limiting. 

  • SCARA robots: These robots are selectively compliant, which means they’re meant to perform one specific job. This design gives them an advantage in repetitive pick-and-place tasks and assembly-line applications.

  • Cartesian robots: The latest addition to the line of robotic arms is Cartesian robots, which only have one linear motion and are thus much easier for humans to operate with pinpoint accuracy. Ease of use means lower operation costs and a wider range of applications.

Self-driving vehicles are also gaining momentum. Instead of having employees operate different kinds of heavy equipment in a confined space, businesses can deploy numerous autonomous alternatives to create a safer and more productive work environment. Forklifts, pallet jacks, telehandlers, walkie stackers, inventory scanning drones and more are now fully automated.


Unmatched Market Research

Outside of manual applications, robots can also assist with market research. Their built-in artificial intelligence software makes price forecasting a breeze and helps companies fight cost inflation. Rather than going by limited information and speculation, robots leverage predictive analytics to predict future trends more accurately.

For example, the popular online marketplace eBay uses artificial intelligence to develop flexible price models and create more impactful promotional content based on customer behaviors. Changing prices is no longer an arbitrary decision but a well-informed and strategic adjustment to a company’s eCommerce business model.


Filling the Labor Gap

Robots are helping businesses fill the labor gaps from the Great Resignation that started in 2020. The mass employment exodus will continue in the future, as a significant percentage of the existing workforce — namely baby boomers — will leave the workforce over the next 10 to 15 years.

Many of the aforementioned robots are prime examples. Self-driving forklifts and pallet jacks are replacing missing warehouse workers. Underemployed retail spaces are using robots as cashiers and janitors. Businesses use robots to guide customers through the online shopping experience, involving them in every step of the online-shopping process.


Looking Ahead

According to the 2023 MHI Industry Report, 20% of surveyed companies utilize robots such as autonomous vehicles and drones in their daily operations. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they planned on investing in robotics in the next three years. A lot can change in three years, so it’s important to look ahead and see what’s next in the development of robotics.

Some researchers believe artificial intelligence will make robots smart enough to remove humans from eCommerce in the next decade, replacing everyone from warehouse managers to package delivery drivers. Others believe robots will absorb specific sectors, including agriculture, health care, electronics and automobiles. However, some barriers will prevent robots from reaching their full potential.

The most obvious barrier is the price of using such advanced technology. Research, development and implementation often costs six figures, which most enterprises can’t afford. The robotics business model has only started shifting to accommodate smaller manufacturers and has a long way to go.

The other obstacle is the public’s perception of robotics as a whole. People have been highly skeptical of autonomous cars for years, so they might not be receptive to robots delivering packages or acting as customer-service representatives. Millions of people also risk losing their jobs to robots in the future.

Based on these factors, the most likely outcome is a mixture of robots and humans in eCommerce. Robots can make business operations faster, safer and more efficient, but they can’t replace human decision making altogether. Humans will remain in the driver’s seat while robots assist with their assigned tasks.


Robots Are the Future of eCommerce

Robots don’t just have a future in eCommerce — they are the future of eCommerce. They have already positively impacted every step of the online shopping experience, from packing to shipping to market research to customer interactions. 

They will continue to improve in these roles as they gather more information and one day become fully autonomous.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow

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