The holidays can make warehouses like Amazon and Wal-Mart extremely busy tackling hundreds of thousands of orders in one single day. An order comes through, and you’re tasked with gathering all of the contents in the order, packaging it up and sending it out so it can arrive on time. One individual at the University of Missouri is looking to create a symbiotic relationship between humans and robots, or co-bots, as he calls them, to make that task a little bit easier.

“So, in this particular problem, we are trying to optimize the first mile of delivery operations,” according to Sharan Srinivas, an assistant professor in the Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering and Marketing departments at the University of Missouri. “Let’s say we have 100 items that you need to collect from the warehouse and load it onto the truck. How fast can you do that and how do you coordinate? Traditionally, it’s basically just done by just the human pickers where humans take a big cart, mow around the warehouse put all of these items in that bin and then load it onto the truck, but this is very cumbersome. There’s a lot of strain on the human workers. They work a lot. They need to push a big cart. There’s a lot of strain from the picker’s side. What we’re trying to do now is try and integrate these new imaging technologies called co-bots, which is basically collaborative robots that works along with these humans.”

These collaborative robots are responsible for transporting the items autonomously throughout the warehouse and the pickers take and put these items on the co-bots. Srinivas adds that robots can’t grasp items very well. That’s where humans come in where they can put the variously sized items in the bins themselves.

“What we are trying to solve here is how do you coordinate them efficiently,” adds Srinivas. “So, if you have 100 orders that you have to take, which orders must be picked by which robot and which humans should be responsible for putting those items on the robots. What should be the route that the robots and the humans should take within the warehouse so that you complete the whole process in the minimum time possible.”

Despite the preconceived notions that Hollywood movies like Terminator have given to automated robots, Srinivas says they aren’t designed to replace humans, but rather, make their jobs easier.

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