How hard can it be to make a fully-automated warehouse?
Well, so far it has stumped Amazon and Google.
To be fair, it depends on what exactly you’ll be doing in the warehouse. There are lights-out warehouses in use today. But widespread adoption remains elusive, always just about to take over the industry thanks to the latest technology somebody is selling. Despite what Business Insider called an “army of robots” in Walmart warehouses, there is still an army of people, too. Amazon is in a similar situation, with a growing human workforce despite acquiring Kiva Systems.
Google is also trying to solve automation of material handling. Just look at the effort they have put into it so far:
- At the end of 2013, Google had Andy Rubin in charge of a collection of seven robotics companies. Rubin was credited with the success of the Android mobile operating system. For robotics, he saw “clear opportunities” in “both manufacturing and logistics,” intending to “sell products sooner rather than later” according to the NY Times. But Rubin left a little less than a year later, with Google brushing off questions about competing with Amazon.
- Nevertheless, in 2015 Google filed for patent, granted about a year later, pertaining to automated vehicles working in a warehouse.
- Another patent granted in 2016 deals with coordination between flying and wheeled delivery robots.
- Google had a keynote presentation at the 2014 annual conference of the Material Handling Industry trade association.
- In March 2016, Google unveiled efforts to train a robotic picking arm. Not coincidentally, Amazon has for three years running been sponsoring a robotics challenge for picking.
- Speaking of training a learning algorithm to pick parts, Google Glass is now used in factories and warehouses.
- Google also has a long-running and slowly growing delivery service, Google Express. Partnering with retailers like Target and Walmart helps the traditional retailers compete with Amazon.
While the evidence suggests Google is gearing up to enter warehousing, material handling and logistics, as yet no specific products or services have been announced. If the business vision is to provide an open platform logistics service, a low-key approach makes sense; the last thing existing retailers need in their battle against Amazon is another Amazon under a Google brand.
Also, much as is the case with their autonomous car division Waymo, Google has nothing distinctive to offer until their warehouse robots are really autonomous. There are a plethora of warehouse automation products in the market today, and the only thing they all have in common is a failure to fully replace human workers.
Google’s failure to bring any warehouse solutions to market could be taken by incumbents as sign that they are safe – the challenge is just too great for Google to handle. Or it could just be a matter of time before Google Search is returning real, tangible results in the warehouses of retailers around the world, competing with Amazon’s “walled garden” with an “open platform” that resembles the competitive position Google took to compete with Apple’s iPhone. Incumbent players in the warehousing solutions industry should look at the long list of phone manufacturers who did not survive the clash of the titans, and adjust their strategies accordingly.