Robotic automation is revolutionizing
warehouses. Capable of picking, packing, and shipping items,
robots enable lower costs and enhanced productivity.
Innovative automated systems offer an integrated approach to
inventory, quality control, and order fulfillment,
streamlining processes and boosting competitiveness.
The present article will present the most recent trends in
robotic warehouse automation and discuss the R&D tax
credit opportunity available for innovative companies using
robots to reduce the complexity and the costs associated with
The Research &
Development Tax Credit
Enacted in 1981, the Federal Research and
Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13
percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and
processes. Qualified research must meet the following four
New or improved products,
processes, or software
Technological in nature
Elimination of uncertainty
Process of experimentation
Eligible costs include employee wages,
cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses,
and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18,
2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax
Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit
can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax and startup
businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in
Amazon’s Robots and
the Future of Warehouses
Robotic automation stands out as a unique
opportunity to enhance America’s competitiveness. It reduces
the need for outsourcing in favor of low cost labor, keeping
plants and jobs in the U.S. Throughout the nation, a growing
number of companies are turning to robotic warehouse
automation as a means to reduce costs and complexities
associated with handling materials.
Warehouse robots are taking over dull, repetitive tasks, and
freeing up people to perform more value added work. They
streamline the complex logistics of material handling,
dramatically increasing overall output. Flexible, scalable,
and easy to implement, sophisticated software, hardware, and
robotic engineering are increasingly adaptable to the frequent
changes in product design and operational strategies.
One of the most iconic examples of robotic warehouse
automation is Amazon. In 2012, the Seattle online
retailer acquired robotic systems manufacturer Kiva Systems
for $775 million. Since the acquisition, Kiva stopped selling
robots to previous customers and has focused exclusively in
improving software and hardware to meet Amazon’s needs.
Warehouse automation is seen as an integral tool in the
retailer’s strategy to compete with the immediacy of in-store
shopping. Saving time in warehouse product handling means
being able to offer quicker delivery. This is particularly
crucial during the holiday season, when Amazon generates more
than 30 percent of its annual revenue.
In addition to saving time, robots are expected to reduce
Amazon’s fulfillment costs, saving between $400 and $900
million annually, or 20 to 40 percent of the current $3.50 to
$3.75 per order. Productivity is also expected to rise
considerably – an average picker walks twenty miles every day
and “picks” 100 items per hour; this number triples to 300
when robots are deployed.
Kiva’s innovative technology consists of movable shelves and
mobile robots, which work in real-time and are controlled by a
server. When an order comes in, the robot is instructed to
find the specific shelf where the product is located and bring
it to the designated picker.
Kiva shelf-toting robots have already been deployed in
Amazon’s warehouses in California, Kentucky, and Texas, among
other states. In May, the retailer had 1,000 robots working on
its facilities. The company announced plans to expand this
number to 10,000 by the end of the year.
Amazon’s example sheds light on the future of warehouses.
Robotic automation can revolutionize the economics of labor
and capital-intensive activities, making warehouses safer,
more productive, and more cost-effective.
Warehouse automation often takes the form
of mobile autonomous robots capable of sorting, storing, and
delivering materials. Potential applications include picking,
palletizing, packing, loading trucks, etc.
I. Picking: A prominent member
of the Massachusetts robotics cluster , Wilmington-based
Symbotic has been a pioneer of integrated supply network
automation solutions for warehouses and distribution centers.
The company’s MatrixSelect is a new breed of Automated Storage
and Retrieval System (AS/RS), designed to optimize
fulfillment, transportation, and logistics.
Symbotic's no-touch handling system is smarter, faster, and
more user-friendly than conventional AS/RS. It consists of a
robotic-enabled structure capable of increasing storage
capacity by up to 30 percent. Such gain in product density is
possible through the elimination of forklift aisles and the
complete vertical and horizontal use of warehouse space.
The innovative system employs mobile autonomous robots called
MatrixBots, which can travel freely throughout the storage
structure accessing any product, in any location at a very
high throughput rate. Capable of picking and restocking,
MatrixBots can handle high volumes of products of variable
II. Palletizing: For
many new companies implementing warehouse robotics,
palletizing is a natural starting point. When performed
manually, this task can be ergonomically challenging and can
easily lead to injuries. Acknowledging the growing
demand for automated palletizing, Yaskawa Motoman, an American
subsidiary of the Japanese company Yaskawa Electric
Corporation, developed a range of robots specifically designed
for layer-forming, palletizing, and depalletizing
With 4-6 axis of articulation, Yaskawa’s palletizing robots
have payload capacities between 50 kg and 800 kg. They are
equipped with MotoSight, a 2D and 3D vision guidance
technology that enables work in both structured and
unstructured environments. They also feature easy-to-use,
feature-rich palletizing software and controllers that allow
for homogeneous case or bag palletization.
Yaskawa’s innovative hardware and software combination is
based on the notion that effective palletizing robots should
not be restricted to picking products up and putting them
down. They must be able to factor in the necessity of
stability, which is key in preventing damages, and store-ready
sequence, which speeds up delivery and reduces transportation
III. Loading and Unloading:
Other demanding and injury-prone activities in warehouses is
truck loading and unloading. Common shortcomings include
inconsistent and slowed loading operations, damaged products,
and thefts. Aiming to tackle these issues, Yaskawa Motoman
developed robotic solutions for truck unloading and mixed-case
depalletizing. Using intelligent vision technology, Yaskawa’s
innovative robots are capable of finding the location of
randomly positioned boxes, which are then quickly unloaded or
Located in Elk Grove, Illinois, Wynright is also a provider of
intelligent material handling systems. The company won the
2013 NextGen Game Changer Award for its Robotic Truck Unloader
(RTU). Wynright’s robots are capable of dealing with a number
of variables encountered when loading and unloading. Through
the use of innovative 3D vision technology, they can recognize
size, shape, and location of cases. Complex algorithms allow
them to make intelligent decisions about the best way to take
products off the stack and place them on conveyors.
IV. Packing: Packing is yet
another warehouse task that can be automated. Headquartered in
Greenville, Wisconsin, QComp Technologies, Inc. has developed
a modular, portable, and pre-engineered robotic packaging
system. QComp’s space-saving Robotic Solo Case Packer Cell
packs individual products into shipping cases or containers at
a rate of up to 30 layer picks per minute. Using two advanced
robots, the company’s Duet Case Packer Cell can pack up to 150
products per minute.
From Brewerton, New York, Schneider Packaging Equipment also
specializes in robotic case packing. The innovative Schneider
Packer-Palletizer solution is a unique, cost-effective
automation solution for both packing and palletizing. One
single robotic cell erects cases, loads them with products,
seals, labels, and finally palletizes them.
Navigation and Unmanned Forklifts
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are
promising enablers of robotic warehouse automation. Located in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Seegrid has developed
state-of-the-art robotic pallet trucks and tow tractors. The
company’s innovative vision-guided solutions illustrate how
AGVs can revolutionize the movement of materials in
warehouses, increasing productivity and safety, reducing labor
and operating costs, and preventing equipment and product
Seegrid’s flexible AGVs do not require
additional infrastructure, such as laser, wires, tapes, or
magnets for navigation. The vehicles use evidence grid
technology, an application of probabilistic volumetric
sensing, developed at Carnegie Mellon University. This
innovative technology combines multiple views of an
environment, generating various probabilities of occupancy for
each point in space. It compensates for eventual uncertainties
in the performance of sensors and possible changes of setting.
Seegrid’s vision-guided AGVs use a 360-degree array of stereo
cameras that capture images and record thousands of features
along different routes. These recorded features are use to
build a 3D map, which allows the robotic vehicles to follow
trained routes without the need for human assistance or the
addition of special features, landmarks, or positioning
Due to the great flexibility of the vision-guided technology,
Seegrid’s robotic vehicles are operational from day one and
provide immediate returns on investment. The innovative
solution is an example of how robotic systems can contribute
to enhanced profitability and competitiveness.
In traditional forklifts, the operator accounts for up to 70
percent of the operating costs over the life of the vehicle.
While a fully burdened forklift operator costs between $20-35
per hour, Seegrid’s robots can transport products throughout a
warehouse for as little as $2.24 per hour.
Also, forklift operators classify as one of the highest
insurance premium categories. Robotic forklifts can
substantially reduce workers’ compensation costs by taking
over this risk-prone activity.
Software Advances and
Software works as a robot’s brain.
Advances in robotics software are making warehouse automation
systems more flexible, scalable, and easier to implement. The
development of more sophisticated software responds to the
evolving needs of end-users and reflects the growing demand
for systematic approaches that enable communication between
different warehouse activities.
When it comes to improving robots’ performances, recent trends
include artificial intelligence, enhanced perception
technologies, such as 3D vision, teachability, and improved
speed and accuracy. Based in Nashiville, Tennessee, Universal
Robotics, a leader in 3D flexible automation, has recently
introduced Neocortex, next generation artificial intelligence
software that allows for unlimited box handling and
Universal’s Neocortex uses sensor information to learn and
discover multi-dimension patterns in chaotic environments. It
is based on an intuitive learning technology originally
developed by NASA and Vanderbilt University, which, when
applied to the material handling process, enables fast and
flexible identification of any box, independent of size or
condition, weight, orientation within the work cell, label
quantity/type, or box graphics or color.
The innovative technology can be integrated with Universal’s
Spatial Vision® Robotics 3.2, 3D vision guidance software that
uses off-the-shelf cameras, sensors, and lasers. Combined,
these solutions represent a significant breakthrough in
robotic perception technology. Potential benefits, which
include greater speed, increased safety, and less than
24-month payback, illustrate how software advances can
revolutionize robotic warehouse automation.
In addition to enhancing robots’ capabilities, software can
provide a more comprehensive approach to warehouse automation.
Integrated supply network automation solutions can consolidate
and simplify material flow, contributing to increased
One example is the communication between warehouse management
software and palletizing robots as a means to optimize order
selection and tooling adjustments. In food distribution, for
instance, robotic palletizers must deal with a considerable
diversity of packages, which require different tools – case
handlers, tray handlers, vacuum heads, etc.
Software integration can prevent the frequent back and forth
of tools, by creating sequences of similar products. In this
scenario, the communication between management software and
the robotic solution contributes to shorter cycle times,
greater accuracy, and enhanced productivity.
Simply put, advanced software can choreograph product flow. It
takes into account all the characteristics of products –type,
dimension, destination, etc. - and builds an optimal, virtual
pallet that is then reproduced by robots. This allows, for
instance, for light, fragile cases to be placed on top of
heavy ones and for products to be organized in store-ready
In an even broader approach, innovative software can help
robots multitask. Symbotic’s robotic picking solution, for
instance, is programmed to perform “inventory grooming” when
not fulfilling orders. Advanced software enables the automated
system to constantly reposition stored items in order to
improve retrieval speed and optimize throughput.
growing number of innovative warehouse management software
offer an integrated approach to inventory, quality control,
and order fulfillment. Instead of being isolated, stand-alone
units, robots become part of a strategically designed, highly
Finally, advanced software for robotic warehouse automation
can also serve as important sources of data. The unprecedented
access to information, including cycle times for each task,
can greatly contribute to quality and productivity
Despite major advances in warehouse
automation, there is growing consensus around the idea that
robots should not replace humans but to work alongside them.
Instead of substituting workers, automation is making them
In this context, a new generation of collaborative robots
emerges. Designed to operate safely in human-occupied
spaces without the need for safety constraints, the so-called
cobots are flexible and capable of performing multiple tasks.
Manufactured by Rethink Robotics, Baxter is an iconic example
of the huge potential of cobots. Weighing 165 lbs., Baxter has
two 7-axis arms connected to a torso, each of them capable of
lifting up to 5 lbs. It features an LCD display for an
animated “face” that reacts to human interaction.
Additionally, Baxter has a built-in 360 sonar and front camera
sensors to detect human presence, integrated vision for
movement and object detection, and interchangeable
end-effectors for easily switching tasks. Baxter requires no
complex programming or costly integration. It presents
behavior-based “common sense”, or intuitiveness. In other
words, it is capable of sensing and adapting to a task or
Baxter’s $25,000 base price has made it an affordable solution
for a growing number of businesses. In warehouse environments,
collaborative robots, such as Baxter, can be used in a variety
of tasks, which include picking, packing, loading and
unloading, among others.
The Economics of
Robotic Warehouse Automation
The perspective of accelerated returns on
investment largely explains the increasingly widespread
adoption of warehouse robotic solutions. New businesses
introducing robotic warehouse automation experience a typical
economic payback of less than a year for many of the new robot
Additionally, such businesses can take advantage of federal
R&D tax credits, which further lighten the economic burden
of the robotic investment. The following table illustrates
potential R&D tax credits scenario for the acquisition of
Operating warehouses is a capital and
labor-intensive business. Robotic automated solutions emerge
as a means to streamline processes and increase profitability,
revolutionizing the economics of the supply network. Robotics
companies developing new and improved warehouse solutions as
well as manufacturers, retailers, and distributors
implementing robotic warehouse automation should take
advantage of federal R&D tax credits.