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Do you Need Humanoid Robots at your Loading Docks?


A recent news story has made us think about the types of automation that will bring the greatest return at the loading docks. 

Canadian clothing retailer and subsidiary of Canadian Tire, Mark’s ‘employed’ a humanoid robot in one of its stores for a week. 

During the week, the robot completed 110 tasks that would normally be done by a human worker. This included both front- and back-of-store activities like replenishment, picking and packing merchandise, cleaning, tagging, labelling, folding, and more. 

The story leaves a number of questions unanswered, such as whether the robot could complete the tasks as quickly and effectively as a human, did it need breaks to recharge its batteries, and how did the human in the store react

However, at the end of the week, both the retailer and the robot’s manufacturer, Vancouver-based Sanctuary AI, were happy with the results. “Many organizations are facing labour challenges. Our population is aging, birth rates are declining, and workers have more choice for what they do and where they work than ever in history,” said Geordie Rose, co-founder and CEO, Sanctuary AI. 

Through our partnership with Canadian Tire Corporation, we worked on analyzing how their work was done and what work people like and don’t like doing, in both their retail and distribution centre environments. In January we deployed a general-purpose robot to a retail store to attempt to perform many necessary but rudimentary tasks that people note finding unsatisfying or unfavorable. The results were spectacular.”

Addressing the labour shortage

It's interesting to see that companies like CTC, that have huge distribution centres feeding stores across the country, would be contemplating deploying humanoid robots in their operations. This style of robot, standing on two feet, with arms and a ‘head’ is all the rage lately, with dozens of start-ups and well-established companies (like Tesla with its Optimus robot) jumping into the lab to create their own Ai-powered humanoid. 

Their designers envision them at work caring for the sick and elderly, as well as performing tasks that real humans don’t particularly enjoy. They are being trialed in manufacturing, security, construction and warehouse operations, to highlight just a few of their possible applications.

And with the significant labour shortage, it’s no wonder that there is interest. Recent estimates suggest that humanoid robots alone could fill between four and 125 percent of the existing labour gap by 2030.

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Heading for a fall

On the other hand, however, there are those who do not believe the humanoid robot is the way to go. In an article published recently on , Brad Porter, who is CEO of a collaborative robotics company, suggested they are too difficult to engineer. His argument is nuanced, however for the sake of brevity let’s paraphrase: humanoid robots are a challenge because they fall down. Getting them to stay on their feet just magnifies the engineering required to make them work well.

There’s no need, Porter argues, to make a human-like robot for logistics. Wheels do the job just fine, and have done for millennia. He cites Amazon with its goods-to-person robots as the pinnacle of how to bring collaborative ‘bots into the DC at scale. Small, simple and wheeled units with few moving parts. 

Keep it simple, and smart

He brings up a really good point: Do you really need a robot that looks like a person? We’ve recently talked about new physical technologies that are coming to the loading dock space, like slip sheets and robotic trailer loading that can handle both individual cases and pallets. These are useful applications that can reduce costs and speed up the processes at the docks.

They also integrate seamlessly with the automation that controls the flow of trailers to those docks. C3 Reservations, for example, which automates the dock scheduling process, dovetails perfectly with trailer-loading technology. 

First, C3 reservations helps carriers set appointments at the docks digitally. This takes a huge burden away from staff, who no longer have to chase down appointments or manually reschedule truckers who are delayed. Second, it can be set up to prioritize certain loads or parts of loads to meet inventory and replenishment needs.  

Smart unloading technologies can be programmed to be ready when trucks arrive, set to roll right up to the dock door as the truck backs in. And with directions from the C3 Reservations and WMS systems, unloading (or loading) can be sequenced in whatever order is needed to streamline operations.   

By deploying these smart systems together you earn a win with lower costs thanks to less idle time and fewer human touches, reduced human error and improved throughput at your DC. By automating a system like dock scheduling, you are creating a more efficient and accurate workflow for your loading docks. You have removed guesswork, numerous checks and paper-based systems, replacing them with automated, configurable and constantly updated software that saves time and cuts costs.

So, in keeping with the principle of keeping it simple, the idea of humanoid robots at the loading docks is still a bit futuristic. Do you really need a system that might fall down? We like the idea of humanoid robots – they’re cool, fascinating to watch, and even a little creepy in a way. But if they’re not ready for prime time, we think sticking with tested automation makes more sense. 

What you get with automated dock scheduling from C3 Solutions is a reliable, predictable and proven system. We’ve been creating scheduling software since 2000. Our software doesn’t fall down like a humanoid robot might; it does its job, without needing help day in a day out, 24/7 if necessary.