ABB, one of the world’s leading supplier of industrial robots, and Silicon Valley AI start-up, Covariant, have formed a partnership to bring AI-enabled robotics solutions to market, starting with a fully autonomous warehouse order fulfilment solution.
ABB says the partnership brings together two companies with a shared vision for robotics enabled by AI, where intelligent robots work alongside humans in dynamic environments, “collectively learning and improving with every task completed”.
Given the accelerated global growth experienced in the e-commerce sector, ABB identified a significant opportunity for AI-enabled robotics solutions across a broad range of applications including logistics, warehousing, and parcels and mail sorting.
Global revenues in e-commerce are expected to increase by over 50 percent within the next five years, rising from €1.7 trillion in 2019 to €2.6 trillion in 2024, according to Statista.
The growing demand for e-commerce fulfilment services and the complex and labor-intensive nature of the process offers unique potential for intelligent automation.
The market is growing at a steady pace – 4 to 5 per cent – and is expected to reach a value of €51.3 billion by 2021, according to procurement intelligence firm Beroe Inc.
Today, warehouse operations are labor intensive, and the industry struggles to find and retain employees for picking and packing.
While robots are ideally suited to repetitive tasks, until now they lacked the intelligence to identify and handle tens of thousands of constantly changing products in a typical dynamic warehouse operation.
ABB launched a global competition in 2019 to assess 20 leading AI technology start-ups on their approach to solutions for 26 real-world picking, packing and sorting challenges.
The aim was to understand if AI is mature enough to unlock the potential for robotics and automation in the segment.
ABB also sought a technology partner with which to co-develop a robust AI solution capable of supporting autonomous materials handling, enabling its robots to handle items of infinite variety.
The Covariant Brain is a universal AI that allows robots to see, reason and act in the world around them, completing tasks too complex and varied for traditional programmed robots.
Covariant’s software enables robots to engage in reinforcement learning: adapting to new tasks on their own through trial and error and therefore constantly broadening the range of objects they can pick.
Sami Atiya, president of ABB’s Robotics and Discrete Automation business, says: “Our partnership with Covariant is part of our strategy to expand into new growth sectors such as distribution and e-commerce and to leverage the scaling potential in these fields.
“It perfectly complements our offering and adds to our aim to be the number one choice in robotics solutions for our customers.
“Through the combination of artificial intelligence with our robots, we are opening an entire new field of opportunities and applications for a variety of industries.”
Peter Chen, Covariant’s chief executive and co-founder, says: “If you want to advance artificial intelligence, we now need to take it out of the laboratory and apply it to the real world.
“We are delighted to be able to work with ABB to create AI Robotics solutions for customers worldwide, benefitting from ABB’s nearly five decades of domain knowledge and expertise in deploying automation systems into the most demanding industrial environments.”
The first installation of the ABB and Covariant AI-enabled solution is already being deployed at Active Ants (part of the bpost group), a leading provider of e-commerce fulfilment services for web businesses in Utrecht in the Netherlands.