A robot named "Cartman" priced under $24,000 won Amazon's annual Robotics Challenge contest to create a machine that can identify, pick up and stow warehouse goods. The machine, created by a team from Australia, relies on a sliding mechanism to grab items from above, the BBC reported Monday. The winners took home $80,000 in cash.
The three-stage test of the contest included tasks such as instructing the machines to pick up specific products from a mix of items, then place them in boxes suitable for delivery. Then the robots had to remove the specific items from a container and place them in storage. Finally, the robots had to combine the first two tasks, first putting all the items into storage, then choosing a selection to be lifted and placed in delivery boxes.
The winners describe their piece as a "Cartesian co-ordinate robot." Using a frame that allowed it to move in straight lines across a three-part axis at right-angles — vertically, horizontally and forward/back — Cartman resembles a container port crane. A rotating gripper with suction cups and a two-fingered claw both grasped and manipulated the items in question.
In the ongoing hunt for new technology to streamline the picking process, Amazon's sponsorship of the Robotics Challenge is a relatively inexpensive way for the company to identify new picking and packing solutions. In 2012, when the company purchased the picking-enabled Kiva robot, it gained a competitive edge over other warehouse sellers.
While a robot like Cartman takes the Amazon prize this year, companies like DHL, Kuka AG, Dematic Corp. and Honeywell's Intelligrated, as well as startups like RightHand Robotics Inc. and IAM Robotics LLC are already developing their own automated picking solutions. DHL, for example, is currently testing the EffiBOT in its warehouses, an AI cart that follows a worker and carries items and packages.
As the e-commerce industry continues to grow rapidly — having gained 262,000 jobs over the past five years — companies are beginning to look for more efficient ways to streamline warehouse processes. The Wall Street Journal reported that close to a million people now work in e-commerce, according to Labor Department data, with continual wage increases and popular benefits used to entice potential workers. Now employers are hoping to reduce the human expense — which some identify as potentially one fifth of shipping expenses — by substituting AI robots for mundane tasks.