Robot is not hard: how postal logistics gets smarter

    The growing popularity of online stores has changed the postal logistics industry. In many ways, the customer’s life has become better: the delivery time for packages has been reduced, it is possible to track the status of an order and choose options that are convenient for them. Have you thought about how postal companies handle our orders? We decided to tell you about new technologies and concepts that are used in logistics centers in Russia and abroad.

    Possibilities of a modern sorting center

    The peculiarity of sorting centers, especially in the postal departments, is that the abundance of diverse cargoes requires their quick and efficient processing. To solve this problem is becoming increasingly difficult due to the growth of the e-commerce market, when companies can not speed up their work with traditional methods (due to the increase in staff or the construction of new logistics centers).

    In Russia, this trend was felt by the Russian Post when millions of international parcels poured into the country, especially from China. Logistics centers could not cope with such an influx, so it was decided to upgrade the logistics complexes. Toshiba, the developer of the world's first automated OCR letter processing system, was chosen as one of the technological partners of Russian Post. The company has supplied sorting lines for logistics centers in Vnukovo, Moscow Region, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk and Kazan.

    Automated sorting line in Vnukovo near Moscow (up to 1.5 million shipments per day). Source: Russian Post

    Source: Russian Post

    The automated sorting line is equipped with an optical pattern recognition system that allows you to sort not only registered, but also simple small models. A curious fact: for processing more than 200 thousand items per day, only 12 operators are needed. The settings of the sorting machine make it possible to carry out a detailed sorting of shipments by post offices.

    In addition, Toshiba has proposed a solution for the system of customs inspection. As is known, Russia accepts all parcels from abroad after checking the compliance of the actual weight with the weight declared on the label. Previously, this was done manually, so it took a lot of time. Now the new customs system in the sorting center carries out automatic weighing, and also scans the declared contents of the parcel. Operators of the Russian Post only have to control the operation of the system, checking the adequacy of indicators on monitors.

    Post Inspection Area. Source: Russian Post.

    The experience of the sorting hubs of DHL , which makes significant investments in express delivery, is noteworthy abroad . This year, another distribution center opened at the airportBrussels . According to the company, using the most advanced transport and logistics technologies will almost four times increase the capacity of the hub and allow you to send up to 42 thousand loads per hour.

    Warehouse logistics: robots have found application

    Unlike sorting centers, warehouse operators have other tasks: efficiently using the space for storing packages, carefully moving different types of cargo around the center, grouping them for delivery.  

    In general, warehouse logistics is an extremely time-consuming process, both physically and intellectually. Despite the relevance of logistics roboticism, until recently, technology did not allow making robots that would be as good as humans. Only the appearance of capacious and compact batteries, fast wireless communication, advanced optical sensors, machine learning, artificial intelligence and neural networks could give impetus to the development of robots of all types.

    Three years ago a video spread on the Internet at lightning speed., filmed in one of the Amazon warehouse centers. On it the army of small orange robots gracefully moved shelves with goods through the shop. Tens and hundreds of small “bugs” easily transported heavy objects on themselves, avoiding collisions with dexterity that motorists would envy.

    Since 2003, DHL has been using a self-developed robot to unload mail from containers, and Wynright has offered a similar robot to anyone.

    Source: Youtube

    In some cases, the goods are shipped in a container, not in individual units, but in pallets. Then another mechanism may be involved - for example, a robot from the Russian company Ronavi, capable of transporting up to one and a half tons of cargo on euro pallets, moving along a given path and changing it in case of unexpected obstacles. With a roomy elevator, the Ronavi robot will be able to deliver its burden to another floor of the warehouse.

    Source: Ronavi Robotics

    What are robots already doing?

    It depends on whether we are talking about individual robots or about a complex solution - a single system that serves all stages of warehouse operations. This is, for example, the Swisslog company, which offers a ready-made CarryPick solution, consisting of transport robots, configurable racks and SynQ software. When deploying a warehouse on the basis of CarryPick, the customer receives the shelves, the configuration of which is easy to change according to what kind of goods will be stored on them.

    Source: The

    Swisslog KMP600 robots carry shelving to operators, focusing on QR codes on the floor. The software recommends the best place to store a specific item, analyzing the contents of all shelves on all shelves.

    After successfully automating the transportation of shelves with goods, many companies were faced with the inability to get specific items from the shelves of robots. Artificial intelligence is undoubtedly lost to people in the accuracy, attentiveness and speed of "getting" items from the shelves. To solve this problem, especially for Amazon Robotics, Toshiba has designed a six-axis robot that is able to independently determine the best way to capture cargo and easily transfer loads up to 20 kg along the most difficult trajectories.

    Toshiba Six-Axis Robot

    If the items are not neat rectangular boxes, but a jumble of bags of different sizes and weighing up to 2 kg, the Toshiba SCARA robot comes into play. He pulls out of the container randomly thrown objects with the help of three suction cups.

    Another Toshiba robotic arm does not have a vacuum gripper, but a clamping mechanism, which is paired with an AI and a camera that recognizes the shape and materials of objects, can gently take and rearrange everything that fits in dimensions 50x30x20 cm and weighing no more than 7 kg.  

    Toshiba Picking Robot. Full video review

    Literally in the last year, mobile robotic manipulators have also appeared on the market, capable of getting items of various shapes from the shelves. The company IAM Roboticsoffers the Swift robot, which is a complex set of mechanized “hands” with a suction cup and a mobile platform with a battery. Swift operates with its limb at the speed of a person, that is, very quickly, and can pick up objects weighing up to 7 kg from the shelves. The Swift cargo platform holds up to 25 kg, the battery lasts for 10 hours, and its replacement takes 30 seconds. However, with all the Swift technology, the robot cannot replace sorters in Amazon’s warehouses - the retailer’s employees process orders with incredible speed and accuracy that even Swift is not yet available.

    Source: Youtube, IAM Robotics

    Why can't they?

    The problem of the “last mile” (the last stage of delivery to the addressee / buyer) is practically not solved. At least in Russia, where the automation of all logistics, unfortunately, according to cursory estimates of experts, lags behind the American one by 10 years and by 7-8 years from the European one.

    Attempts to replace couriers with delivery robots have been made not for the first year, but the launches of the same drones most often represent only a marketing action, and not a real change in logistics. Amazon is ready to use flying drones to deliver goods to the buyer, street lights with charging stations for robots were even created, but in 2016, the company rejected the US Federal Aviation Administration, banning Amazon from using drones for delivery.

    However, this spring, the service UberEatsallowed the use of drones for food delivery in San Diego, USA. Also, Apple, Intel, Microsoft, Uber, Airbus, FedEx and other companies have been approved for commercial use of drones.


    But the Amazon initiative was again unrealized, and the community is inclined to believe that the problem is not in the problems of the project itself, but in the strained relations between Amazon and the American authorities. Despite the elegant implementation of delivery by drones, the Amazon Prime Air fleet still consists of cargo aircraft, not robots.

    But not everything is so sad with the “last mile,” as you might think. In fact, robots are already used to deliver mail to recipients. So does the Swiss Post (Swiss Post), bought robotsEstonian company Starship Technologies. The six-wheeled rover fits most of the mailings, and its autonomy is enough for delivery within a radius of 30 minutes.

    At the “combat” testing stage, the rovers are partially controlled by operators, who monitor their movement through the cameras installed on the robot. But in the future, the devices will make their detailed map of the city with all the obstacles that are not indicated on ordinary maps, in order to then move completely autonomously. Employees of Starship argue that during testing, the rovers covered a distance of about 8 thousand kilometers, and for all the time no incidents happened to them.


    Not so far the day when the delivery from the online store on the day of the order will not be an exclusive service, but a common practice. And logistics robots help make this day closer.

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