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Three reasons Elon Musk’s “Optimus” isn’t the future of warehouse automation

Article by Michael Trimmer

 

 

It is rare that warehouse automation gets discussed in primetime news, but this became a particular focus when an emergent new technology forced its way into the spotlight.

In September 2022 Elon Musk unveiled “Optimus”. A general-purpose humanoid robot that the company claimed was the first generation of a truly revolutionary new technology. Naturally, this created a great deal of excitement and interest among both Mr Musk’s legions of fans and the mainstream media who were fascinated to see Hollywood futurism emerge in real life.

Yet the more soberly-minded analysts were rolling their eyes. While this kind of stunt might grab headlines and get plenty of attention, the generally accepted truth is that humanoid robots are not the way forward for warehouse automation. To understand why, consider the following three reasons:

Space

When it comes to designing any warehouse automation system, the space it consumes will always be a vital consideration. Commercial real estate is in exceptionally high demand recently, not only given the pressures of the pandemic-accelerated ecommerce boom, but also the everyday concerns of warehouse expenses. Every last square foot of a given warehouse has to be utilised to the maximum possible monetary effect. So a warehouse automation system must always be maximally space efficient.

In this area, Optimus falls entirely flat. The size and shape of the average Optimus robot that we’ve seen is roughly analogous to an average person. Consequently, the space needed to make room for things like walkways, manoeuvring space, and all the other considerations needed for regular employees.

In contrast, a flexible warehouse automation system can get by with much less space. Robots in that solution can fit in place underneath freestanding shelving units, allowing them to move about the warehouse without human-sized designated walking paths. The only consistent paths they will need are the size of the shelves themselves. Even those can be shrunk and changed as needs demand, given that they are freestanding.

In a side-by-side comparison of space utilisation, flexible warehouse robots that roll on wheels will always outdo anything built with a humanoid shape in mind.

Competition

When first imagining things, it’s easy to think that Optimus and other such robots have a massive competitive edge. They won’t get tired, won’t get distracted, and don’t make the kind of manual errors that can be a real problem for warehouses of all kinds. When you think of them like that, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking Optimus is the obvious horse to bet on in the competition stakes.

However, humanoid robots working in the warehouse automation sphere are not competing against manual pickers. They are racing the purpose-built picking robots. Robots that are specifically built to fit the size and shape of shelves. To take up the least space and move at the fastest possible speed. While the humanoid profile is extremely versatile and able to perform well in a hugely varied range of tasks, it cannot compete against a purpose-built system, designed with a particular process in mind.

In any real-world economic competitiveness scenario, a system that can do fourteen tasks somewhat well will always be beaten out by a system that can do one task incredibly well. In terms of warehouse automation, Optimus isn’t competing against people. It’s competing with purpose-built solutions. In that comparison, it will fail.

Cost

Although the specific costings of a warehouse using an Optimus system are not yet known in detail, it is more than reasonable to infer that they will be much more expensive than AMRs that are equipped with wheels. The reasoning behind this can be clearly linked to the amount of pomp and fanfare surrounding the Optimus release, as well as the levels of funding required for developments of things like the Boston Dynamics robot dogs and other similar projects.

The effort, energy, and expenses involved in making a robot walk upright on two legs are extreme. In addition to the basic considerations like environmental awareness and AI pathfinding that all robots require, you then have balance, poise, positioning, and acceleration. All things that are unique to the bipedal form.

This by itself will tell you that an Optimus-run warehouse will be more expensive, but that doesn’t even begin to get into the question of maintenance. With a system that is necessarily much more complicated comes the need for much more maintenance. A system that walks upright needs much more equipment to make it work, which means more scope for more things to go wrong. So not only will Optimus-style bipedal robots be more expensive to buy, they will be more costly to run also.

Discover Wise Robotics

The elegance and efficiencies of a flexible warehouse automation system are clear to see. This is what Wise Robotics has on offer, which leads to one further big advantage over the Optimus. Unlike Elon Musk’s latest offering, Wise Robotics offer technology that is available now. You can visit Wise Robotics in person, see next-generation warehouse automation for yourself, and discover why your business needs to join the automation generation today.

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