Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

By John R. Bell


Packing inventory. Loading and moving pallets. Scheduling freight deliveries.

In the commercial world, employees manage these processes with the help the latest technologies. Companies like FedEx, UPS, and Amazon use robotic systems and real-time communications to increase speed, save time, cut costs and help reduce employee fatigue. Yet for years, government distribution has relied heavily on doing things by hand and using decades-old automation.

That’s about to change — at least at DLA.

DLA’s Strategic Distribution and Disposition Research and Development Program is conducting research in advanced technologies that range from warehouse mobile tablets that provide real-time inventory data to forklifts that drive themselves, with a little help from their friends.

DLA established the Warehouse Automation and Robotics Exploration Project to develop new technologies for DLA Distribution warehouse operations. “We’re excited to see how these cutting-edge robotic technologies can reduce the cost of operating large distribution operations and autonomously perform manual tasks efficiently and accurately,” said Navy Cdr. Michael Jefferson, DLA R&D’s deputy chief. Jefferson oversees the project, along with Manny Vengua, program manager for the R&D Strategic Distribution and Disposition unit.

“These are truly emerging technologies which would elevate DLA to a leadership position in applying robotics to distribution operations,” Jefferson said. “Although most of these projects are still in their initial research phase — and full funding is a long way off — the likelihood is that each of these technologies will be in use at some DLA facilities in the next five to 10 years,” he noted.

“These emerging technologies are going to make DLA employees’ lives safer and easier,” Vengua added. “The common denominator is that these technologies reduce the potential for fatigue and injury for the human operator. This frees him or her to focus on accuracy and problem solving, perfecting the process to better serve the warfighter, and — best of all — not having to endure the physical strain of driving, standing, or lifting heavy items for hours at a time.”

Put a Fork in It

DLA warehouse employees may soon benefit from the arrival of the autonomous forklift, which can lift, transport, and deposit items without an operator on the vehicle. “Autonomous forklifts can perform many of the most basic tasks without a human operator,” Jefferson explained. “They can also save time and improve efficiency, because operators can quickly take control of the vehicle for manual use when needed, to manage more complex or unusual tasks. This eliminates the need to have two different forklifts available.”

Early research was done by the Army Logistics Innovation Agency, which partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They developed a forklift that can respond to voice commands or instructions through a wireless network and operate without wires or magnetic floor stripes. That same technology has been adopted by a major forklift manufacturer of forklift for commercial use. Should these be implemented at DLA, improved productivity and reduced costs would help the program reach a return on investment in two years or less, once the program is mature, said Jefferson.

Autonomous forklifts still require people to operate them when a task requires the greater dexterity and judgment of a human operator—but they can free personnel to focus on tasks such as quality control and accuracy in the warehouse operation.

And they can help improve safety, according to the WAREP analysis. A significant portion of the forklift operational cost is due to accidents and injury. Driving forklifts is an inherently dangerous task. OSHA statistics indicate that there were 85 fatalities and 34,900 serious injuries resulting from forklift operation in 2013. The most common cause of serious injuries was the driver being thrown off the forklift. One out of every six workplace deaths is forklift related. Autonomous forklifts could help reduce the exposure of DLA workers to forklift accidents.

The Golden Retriever

The WAREP team envisions autonomous forklifts and two-armed robots picking and stowing pallets, totes and cartons on and off warehouse racks, but that material still has to be transported to and from waiting human workers for receiving or preparation for shipping, in some instances even from one warehouse building to another.

For that, the team envisions autonomous guided vehicles, otherwise known as AGVs, moving material from receiving to storage and from storage to shipping. “Promising new navigation technologies allow AGVs to maneuver independently through a warehouse to retrieve and deliver material,” said Jefferson. “These systems can fill a variety of roles and can reroute themselves to avoid obstacles. More importantly, these systems can operate alongside people, safely.”

AGVs in various configurations will be tested to fill the many different requirements for moving material in a DLA warehouse operation. “Ruggedized AGVs with rough-ground capability will be evaluated for moving material between co-located warehouse buildings,” said Vengua. “More compact AGVs will be better suited for maneuvering between racks and transporting material within a warehouse. … The concept is not very different from Google Cars, which are driving themselves on California highways today,” said Vengua. “Instead of a busy highway, these AGVs will drive in and between warehouses located together on a base.” 

Arms and the Man or Woman

Another technology considered for testing is the use of lightweight robotic arms mounted on an AGV base to create a versatile mobile robot to manage totes and cartons in the warehouse. The robot is envisioned to move independently to pick and stow totes and cartons, moving vertically on a pole mounted on the AGV base to reach material stored on the upper shelves of standard warehouse racks. The robot would then place the material on a transport AGV or a conveyor system to transport it to a human worker comfortably waiting at an ergonomic picking station. “Lightweight but powerful robotic arms have been developed that can function safely around humans,” Jefferson noted. “This same technology has been used to help paraplegics feed themselves, so they are highly dexterous and very safe.” 

Return on investment is crucial to any decision to implement new technologies and industry figures indicate that investments in robotic technology can result in a positive ROI in three years or less depending upon the application. Savings can result from accuracy, greater labor productivity, and a reduction in workplace accidents and injuries.

In addition, the tote and carton manipulating robots will reduce the reaching for and lifting of heavy items by humans, a potential source of injury. “One of the drivers of robotic technology for commercial distribution operations is worker safety,” Vengua said. “Industry pays a high price for medical and workers compensation benefits due to injuries incurred in performing strenuous warehouse tasks.” “One of our primary goals in this project has been to identify technologies which not only work safely with humans but also have the potential to enhance the safety of DLA’s most valuable resource, our employees,” said Vengua.

The Eyes Have It

Wearable technology is a growing trend in the consumer market as well as in industrial applications. Smart glasses are another technology the WAREP project is considering, to enhance worker productivity, accuracy and safety. Smart glasses typically consist of eyeglass frames or a headset with an optical projection device using a small glass prism extending from one side, to serve as a display screen in the corner of the user’s eye.

The glasses would guide employees to the material storage location and display the item to be retrieved, how many items are at the location being viewed, and other information that normally would require the employee to look away from the task to a computer screen or hand-held scanner. Boeing, for example, has tested the glasses for employees building wiring harnesses, replacing stacks of paper wiring instructions with a visual display from the smart glasses, reducing the error rate from 6 percent to practically nothing.

“The applications for smart glasses are limited only by imagination,”said Vengua. “They can be used to reduce the training time for new employees because the glasses can be programmed to provide step by step guidance to perform a task.”

Fly the Friendly Skies

The armed services have for some time used unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, for some intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and strikes against enemy forces. More recently, commercial sale of UAVs has expanded to the recreational and commercial sector. Some ecommerce companies are even exploring making product deliveries via UAVs.

One application the WAREP team is exploring for UAVs is inventory accountability. UAVs configured with scanners that read bar codes or passive radio frequency identification have shown they can take accurate inventory counts in outdoor storage yards. The technology is being developed for UAVs to count inventory indoors as well. UAVs can autonomously fly a designated flight pattern indoors over bulk storage and in between racking to scan and count inventory.

“One key to customer service is maintaining an accurate count of the inventory,” Vengua noted. “Commercial retailers may lose as much as $450 billion from out-of-stock items, empty shelves, and misplaced product. They also incur high costs in the form of time spent conducting inventories.”

UAVs are not able to count every type of inventory — especially small, loose items, such as washers and screws. However, UAVs can count bulk items and even cartons in racks, allowing people to focus their efforts on the small items.

Containment Policy

Another promising development on the horizon will help DLA move its freight to customers more efficiently, according to Ria Blackwell, a lead traffic management specialist at the Transportation Office of DLA Distribution, in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania.

One of the things her group does is books ocean shipments of DLA items, using direct vendor delivery. DVD shipment sends the freight directly from the vendor’s facility to the customer, instead of through a distribution depot.

In the current process, a DLA Transportation specialist receives information a vendor provides on a form and manually enters it into a booking system, the Vendor Shipment Module. The DLA transportation specialist must then enter that same information a second time into the Integrated Booking System, used by Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Center, known as SDDC—because VSM and IBS don’t communicate.

This redundant manual entry consumes a great deal of time, Blackwell said — and it keeps her team from focusing as much as they could on the things that matter.

“Because there’s no communication between the systems, we can’t decide which booking is the best value,” — meaning cost and speed of delivery, Blackwell said. “We know our vendors, where they’re physically located, their limitations, their history with the carriers and their ability to pick up at those locations. So we can make best-value decisions better than others.”

Her team’s Distribution Transportation Office Automation project would automate the information-sharing portion of the booking process between the Transportation Office and SDDC. This would free Blackwell and her team to focus on which routes are fastest, which carriers most reliable, and which ports best-suited to given shipments, she said.

In addition, the advancement would “significantly reduce the number of clerical errors and allow customers’ freight to move more efficiently,” Blackwell noted.

The team initiated the project about a year ago. The business case analysis is almost complete, and the team is now awaiting permission to gather requirements.