By 2025, over 4 million commercial robots will be installed in over 50,000 warehouses, up from just under 4,000 robotic warehouses in 2018, according to “Robotics in E-commerce Fulfillment,” a study produced by ABI Research, New York. The rapid rate of adoption will be driven by the need for flexible, efficient and automated e-commerce fulfillment, especially as same-day delivery becomes the norm. Global adoption of warehouse robotics will also be spurred by the increasing affordability and return on investment (ROI) of a growing variety of infrastructure-light robots.

“Flexibility and efficiency have become primary differentiators in the e-commerce fulfillment market, as retailers and third-party logistics (3PLs) struggle to cope with volatile product demand, seasonal peaks and rising consumer delivery expectations,” says Nick Finill, senior analyst. “Robots enable warehouses to scale operations up or down as required while offering major efficiency gains and mitigating inherent challenges associated with labor and staffing.”

Automated guided vehicles (AGV) and autonomous mobile robots (AMR) goods-to-person systems can directly replace heavier mechanized automation that typically requires massive upfront investment and rigid physical infrastructure. Robots enable the optimization of space in expensive warehouse facilities, and can reduce the need for new Greenfield fulfillment centers. Mobile robotic systems also offer major flexibility advantages. Robot vendors enable additional robots to be added to or removed from a fleet as operational demands require. They also allow easy and relatively rapid reconfiguration of entire workflows and operations if product lines or fundamental operational requirements change.

Thanks to innovation in computer vision, artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning and robotic mechanics, robots are also becoming increasingly adept at performing traditionally harder-to-automate tasks. Economically viable mobile manipulation robots are now enabling a wider variety of individual items to be automatically picked and placed within a fulfillment operation. By combining mobile robots, picking robots and even autonomous forklifts, fulfillment centers can achieve greater levels of automation in an efficient way.

“By lowering the barriers to adoption for robots in the warehouse, vendors are disrupting the wider logistics value chain,” says Finill. “If advanced automation becomes possible for mid-size e-retailers, they will be able to fight back against the dominant players and also bring fulfillment operations back in-house, disrupting the relationship between retailers and 3PLs.”