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Robots could help save your local store from going out of business

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In a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey, a handful of people stand around the base of a white box as big as a house. Every few seconds a plastic bin emerges from an opening in its sleek walls. Someone reaches in and grabs an item of lingerie or swimwear, and then the bin is gone again—whisked back inside the box to be restacked among 33,000 others arranged in row upon row of floor-to-ceiling towers.

On top of the box, 73 robots crisscross the grid like giant bees tending a honeycomb. Working together, they move the bins around nonstop, accessing specific items and delivering them to the people on the outside. On a busy day, these robots churn through 20,000 online orders, 80% of which are placed via smartphones.

A growing number of retailers are turning to this kind of automation to out-compete their rivals. Robots keep costs down and make order fulfillment quicker and more accurate. Now, given a series of lockdowns that could go on for months or even years, this kind of small-scale automation could be key if retailers are to survive. This is true not only for smaller firms looking to keep up but also for big, established players, who are seeing their business model shift by the week. The way we shop is changing: the future of retail automation is smaller, closer to home, and more flexible. 

Built last year, this automated fulfillment center is Adore Me’s first physical store. Adore Me, a medium-size online retailer founded in 2011 to compete against established brands like Victoria’s Secret, previously relied on third-party logistics firms to manage its stock picking and deliveries. But thanks to stacking tech developed by AutoStore, one of a wave of companies that have sprung up to help smaller firms automate, it now operates its own warehouse.

The technology that Adore Me is now using is not new. Automated fulfillment centers pioneered by behemoths like Amazon and Ocado Technology are vast places, with thousands of robots shunting millions of bins across spaces the size of several soccer fields. But in the last few years the tech has become more distributed as the online shopping market has matured. As robotic warehousing systems become more compact and more modular, more retailers are choosing to install their own, tailored to their business needs and available space. Instead of filling several city blocks, the new generation of systems can be installed in a supermarket stockroom.

This shift toward smaller-scale automation distributed across multiple locations has come as the retail sector is in danger of collapsing. According to the US Department of Commerce, retail sales in the US fell by 16.4% last month—the worst drop since reporting began in 1992. The previous record—a drop of 8.3%—was set in March. With shoppers stuck at home, retailers are suffering across the board. Many physical stores have been shuttered.

Spike in demand

It’s not all bad news, however. Others are seeing their online business explode and finding it hard to meet demand. In the US, e-commerce is up by more than 21% since this time last year. The biggest shift is in groceries. In a letter to grocery industry clients on March 19, consultants McKinsey noted that some were seeing spikes as high as 700%. Instead of making weekly visits to a supermarket, many consumers are now buying food online. Businesses with fast and efficient ways to fulfill online orders will win out.

To keep up, some retailers are scrambling to change how their now-empty stores are used. Instead of displaying items for passing customers, spaces are being turned into storerooms and delivery depots for businesses that have moved entirely online. 

“It’s as if e-commerce jumped ahead five years,” says Vince Martinelli, CEO of Right Hand Robotics, a US firm that has installed robotic arms for picking items from bins in around a dozen retail warehouses in the US, Europe, and Japan.

One response to the spike in demand is to hire tens of thousands of temporary staff, as Amazon has done. But people are expensive. “We’ve had a real jolt to the system, and you cannot solve it in the long run just by throwing people at it,” says Martinelli.”

The other is to accelerate the rollout of technologies to meet it. 

Stores have been weighing the pros and cons of investing in more automation for years, he says. Increasingly, it’s no longer a choice. “Automation is one thing you need to survive,” says Scott Gravelle, CEO of Attabotics, a Canadian company that makes robotic fulfillment systems small enough to fit inside an average-size store. 

A Right Hand Robotics arm and a human picker work side by side in a fulfillment center in Japan

Increased use of robotics is one part of this survival strategy. Not surprisingly, companies building robots or sensors are seeing a spike in interest. Brain Corp, which makes control software for floor-cleaning and stock-moving robots, says it saw usage of its technology increase by 24% in April over the same period last year. Its robots now work a total of 8,000 hours a day, the equivalent of 1,000 employees. Cleaning robots are usually run overnight, but two-thirds of the increased use was during daytime working hours, which Brain Corp thinks reflects the more stringent cleaning demands during the pandemic.

Inertial Sense, which builds smart sensors that allow robots to navigate, says it has had a couple of big orders come in already, and lots of requests for its demo kit. “People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’d better get on this,’” says the firm’s CEO, Tom Bennett. 

The upshot is that smaller retailers are benefiting from the way the big guns have changed the field in recent years. Many large retailers rely on companies like Ocado Technology, which builds and operates vast out-of-town fulfillment centers for several big UK supermarkets. Those that have long embraced automation in this way seem to have adapted to the crisis well. The 3,000 or so robots in Ocado Technology’s larger warehouses are managed by a central AI, which continually tweaks thousands of parameters to ensure that the whole system runs as smoothly as possible. It might change a picking order here, delay one robot over there so that another can catch up, or suggest a more efficient way to stack items. “A system that complicated is really beyond human control,” says Alex Harvey, head of AI. “We have to use AI to run it optimally.”

To help it keep tabs on the warehouse, the AI checks its performance against a virtual simulation of the physical space that mirrors its every movement. When the physical and digital twins fall out of sync, the simulation alerts the AI and its human operators of a potential problem, such as a dropped item or a wonky wheel on one of the robots. This simulation helped the AI recommend a few changes when online demand peaked in the first few weeks of lockdown. As buying habits shift, the grid layout of the bin stacks can be updated overnight. Bins containing items that were bought more frequently were moved to the top, where they could be accessed more quickly. 

Recently, Ocado Technology started to replicate its technology for retailers outside the UK. It has deals with Kroger in the US, Sobeys in Canada, Casino in France, Aeon in Japan, and others. “We did a copy-and-paste for them,” says Harvey. Ocado Technology takes on the high cost of installation itself in exchange for a cut of the retailer’s revenue.

Closer to home

All these firms—big and small—are now watching our new shopping habits closely. When demand spikes and online customers want purchases delivered as soon as possible, centralized fulfillment stops being so cost effective. Efficient stock picking and shorter delivery routes are key, which gives an advantage to smaller local stores over large out-of-town warehouses. 

For example, last year Ocado launched Ocado Zoom, a one-hour delivery service to London, from a smaller warehouse just outside the city. Based on Ocado’s larger installations, Zoom’s stacking system is modular and can be customized to a site. This plus the lower up-front costs will make it easier for smaller stores to adopt automation: they can start small and add capacity as they grow.

In the US, Walmart is another retail giant that is rapidly adapting its model to better suit how we now shop online.

When the pandemic hit, Walmart was in the early stages of offering an express service, which would deliver items ordered online to a customer’s home within two hours. Upgrades to the software that calculated delivery routes and the processes for picking the items in store were rushed through. At the end of March it tested the service in a store in Phoenix, Arizona. On April 16 it rolled it out to 100 stores across the US. The company is now expanding it to more than 2,000.

But express delivery only works if the ordered items are shipped from a location close to the customer. Luckily, Walmart was already experimenting with going small-scale, by shipping items directly from stores rather than from its massive out-of-town warehouses. At the end of 2019, it had rolled out the technology to 130 stores. The software, which tracked every purchase across Walmart’s thousands of stores and kept a millisecond-by-millisecond record of stock, crunched through millions of variables (including availability, speed of delivery, and cost to Walmart) to identify which of those stores was the best choice for fulfilling a local online order. At first Walmart was not seeing much demand for the service, but of course that soon changed. When its large fulfillment centers began to struggle, the company ramped up its ship-from-store service to 2,400 stores in just two weeks.

Attabotics squeezes a robotic warehouse into a room-sized box

Companies like Attabotics are helping smaller names mimic the tactics of the big firms. Its micro-fulfillment system lets small retailers turn a stockroom in the back of their store, or the shop floor itself if it’s closed to customers, into an AutoStore-style order processing machine. It’s a better use of real estate, says Gravelle.

Where AutoStore uses robots the size of washing machines that move across the top of stacks of bins, Attabotics makes a system in which smaller bots burrow up, down, and through a densely packed warren. The whole thing takes up around 6 to 8% of the space that a store would fill if its items were out on display, says Gravelle. Attabotics uses machine learning to determine where stock should be stored, on the basis of what items typically go together in customers’ orders, and the system is adjusted in real time as purchasing behavior changes. It also provides a common set of parts, which can be pieced together in various configurations to fit the shape and size of a room. Attabotics says it runs the smallest (350 square feet, or 33 square meters) and the largest (61,000 square feet) robotic fulfillment centers in the US, including warehouses for the department store chain Nordstrom. “You could have lots of bins and one robot, or a few bins and lots of robots,” says Gravelle.

Even when stores reopen and people return to work, retail will not go back to normal. Stores and warehouses will have to enforce social distancing. Martinelli of Right Hand Robotics thinks that could lead to even more automation. “If fewer people are allowed in a building, humans become of higher value,” he says. “You don’t want to waste a human on a mundane task if you can automate it.” For example, in most automated fulfillment centers, humans still pick items from bins that robots put in front of them. Unsurprisingly, Martinelli thinks this is a task better suited to the kind of robot his company makes. Ocado Technology has also been testing a robot picking arm that could help with social distancing in the post-covid-19 factory.

Retail therapy

Of course, none of this was on the horizon when Adore Me set up its new warehouse. The company invested heavily in automation to support an aggressive international growth strategy. Its robots allow it to process four times as many orders as it could before. Now those robots are helping it keep up during the pandemic, when many people are apparently comfort-buying pajamas.

The efficiencies speak for themselves, says Steven Keith Platt, director of the Platt Retail Institute in Boston, which studies robots in the retail industry: “This is a massive impetus for companies to ramp up investment in automation.”

Bennett, CEO of Inertial Sense, agrees. “Retail is the place where economics is going to drive long-term adoption,” he says. “This has become a boardroom issue faster than I’ve ever seen anything.” But he cautions that automation is not a plug-and-play solution for everyone. Companies looking to invest in automation may have to work around legacy processes and in-house technology.

Even without these hurdles, switching to automation takes time, unless you already have a platform to build on. Millions of dollars’ worth of machinery needs to be ordered, manufactured, and tested. The effect won’t be instant, but when it comes it’ll be here to stay, says Martinelli: “In 2021 or 2022 you’re going to see the impact of what the last month or two has kicked off.”

Businesses that were on the fence at the start of the year have seen their priorities change. Many are now eyeing long months or years of uncertainty ahead. More than a few will commit to an investment that did not look like an immediate need until a few weeks ago.

“There’s always a lot of aspirational talk about the future and what companies would like to do,” says Gravelle. Suddenly there are fewer reasons to put off those plans: “Now they have to do it.”



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UK loses out on lucrative EU satellite contracts because Brexit

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Sentinel-1, the first in the family of Copernicus satellites, is used to monitor many aspects of our environment (ESA)

The UK has missed out on a potentially lucrative contract to build satellites for the EU’s Copernicus Earth programme.

The programme is one of two big space projects happening in Europe and aims to map all elements of planet Earth – from atmospheric conditions to ocean and land monitoring.

And now the European Space Agency’s industrial policy committee has given contracts for six new satellites to various firms in Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

In total, the contracts are worth more than 2.5 billion euros and the UK space industry was very much hoping to get a piece of the pie. Especially considering the UK is the fourth largest contributor to the European Space Agency.

Airbus Defence and Space Germany will lead the development with a contract value of €300 million.

‘While UK organisations will play important roles in five out of the six Copernicus High Priority Candidate missions, we are disappointed overall with the contract proposals and abstained on the vote to approve them,’ a spokesperson for the UK Space Agency (UKSA) said.

‘We are committed to working closely with ESA to ensure our investments deliver industrial returns that align with our national ambitions for space.’

The reason for the snub? Part of it is due to Brexit.

Undated handout photo issued by the ESA of representatives from the agency's member states gathered for a ministerial council. The UK Space Agency has committed ??374 million a year to the European space programme. PA Photo. Issue date: Thursday November 28, 2019. The funding will contribute towards international space initiatives to address climate change, deliver high-speed mobile technology and return the first samples from Mars. See PA story SCIENCE ESA. Photo credit should read: Stephane Corvaja/ESA/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.

Representatives from the ESA’s member states (Stephane Corvaja/ESA)

Although Britain is a member of the ESA and can contribute to the R&D elements of Sentinel (the missions that make up Copernicus) we can’t participate in the manufacturing because that’s funded by EU member states. Which the UK is no longer a part of.

The government is currently trying to negotiate ‘third country’ membership of Copernicus to try and become an industry partner of the missions – but the future is uncertain.

And Copernicus is only one of the EU’s big space projects – the other is called Galileo and is a navigation network of satellites that will rival the USA’s Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system.

The European Space Agency's ExoMars rover is being prepared to leave Airbus in Stevenage. The ExoMars 2020 rover Rosalind Franklin is Europe?s first planetary rover it will search for signs of past or present life on Mars. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday August 27, 2019. See PA story SCIENCE Mars. Photo credit should read: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

The European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover was built at Airbus in Stevenage. (Aaron Chown/PA Wire)

Speaking to the BBC, the ESA’s director of Earth observation, Josef Aschbacher, said there was no bias in awarding the contracts.

‘We can only evaluate what we get in terms of offers,’ he said.

‘If industry shies away from some work packages or activities located in the UK, there is nothing we can do on our side. We have to take what comes to our table.’

The UK space industry is no slouch, it helped build the ESA’s Solar Orbiter space probe which is tasked with getting ridiculously close to the sun in order to better understand our parent star.



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Binary vs. Source Packages: Which Should You Use?

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Regardless of the package manager you use, there are two broad ways of installing programs on Linux. You either use a pre-built package, or you compile the program yourself. These days, the former usually wins out by default, but there are times when you may want to consider compiling from the source coude.

What Are Binary Packages?

deb package format

Installing programs on Linux is usually quite different from the traditional way of installing software on Windows. Rather than downloading an installer off a vendor’s website, the files come from a repository of programs that is usually tailored to your Linux distribution. You access this repository using a Linux package manager or a Linux app store.

The files that make up the programs in these repositories come in an archive format. This bundles everything into a single file for easy access and distribution. Debian, for example, uses the DEB format to store and distribute programs. These bundles are called binary packages.

You need a special program to extract these files and install them onto your computer, typically your package manager or app store. These tools also perform other useful functions, such as keeping track of what files you have installed, and managing software updates.

Where Do Packages Come From?

All software consists of lines of text known as source code, written in specific programming languages, such as C or C++. You generally can’t just bundle this source code into an archive and call it a package. These lines need to be translated into a language your computer can understand and execute.

This process is called compiling, the end result creating binaries that your computer can run. The difference between packages and software is that software binaries are stored together inside a package, along with other things such as configuration files.

What Is Installing “From Source”?

emacs makefile

Installing a program “from source” means installing a program without using a package manager. You compile the source code and copy the binaries to your computer instead.

Most of the time, you can download a project’s source code from hosting services such as GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket. Larger programs might even host source code on a personal website. The code will usually be zipped up in an archive format (also known as a source package).

A special set of tools help automate the building process. On Linux desktops, this often comes in the form of a command line program called make. Source code written in different languages need specific compilers and commands to change them into binaries. The make program automates this process.

For this automation to work, programs provide make with a makefile that tells it what to do and compile. These days, it’s usually automatically generated by special software such as CMake. This is where you come in. From here, you can specify exactly what features you want compiled into your software.

Building “From Source” Example

For example, the command below generates a configuration file for the Calligra Office Suite using CMake. The file created tells the make program to only compile the Writer component of Calligra.

cmake -DPRODUCTSET=WORDS -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=$HOME/kde/inst5 $HOME/kde/src/calligra

Having done this, all a person has to do is run the make tool to compile and copy the results onto their computer. This is done in the following way:

make
make install

While this is the general pattern for compiling programs, there are many other ways to install source packages. Gentoo Linux, for example, has a built-in way of handling this, making the process much faster and easier. But building binary packages takes a few more steps than just the above commands.

Benefits of Using Binary Packages

If you’re using Linux, someone more than likely pre-compiled the software you have installed. This has become much more common than using source packages. But why?

Binary Versions are Easier to Manage

deb package format

Binary packages contain much more than just compiled installation files. They also store information that makes it easy for your package manager to keep track of all your programs. For example, DEB files (the package format for Debian and Debian derivatives) also contain important information such as what other software the program needs to run, and its current version.

This makes packages much easier to install, as you don’t need to worry about what other files you need to successfully make a program run. Your package manager can read that information from the package itself and downloads all the necessary dependencies automatically.

When installing programs from source, unless you compile the code into a binary package of its own, you will be in charge of managing that software. You will need to keep in mind what other programs you need to make it work, and install them yourself.

Binary Versions Have Improved Stability

The people who maintain repositories for your package manager tend to test binaries for problems and do their best to fix those that appear. This can lead to improved stability of programs, something a person who installed from source might miss out on.

Plus packages usually must adhere to a strict set of rules to help ensure they will run on your system. Both Debian and Ubuntu have a policy manual for example, as do many other Linux distributions.

Some programs also rely on different versions of the same software dependency to run. Package repositories do their best to resolve these conflicts so you don’t have to worry about this.

Benefits of Compiling Source Packages

Installing programs from source isn’t something that everyone needs to do, as it’s generally easier to maintain your PC if you stick with binary packages. Even so, there are still some advantages to using this slightly more involved way of installing programs.

Source Code Offers Latest Software

One disadvantage of making programs more reliable is that it takes time to improve and fix. As a result, this can lead to you using older versions of software. For people who want the latest and greatest, they might even prefer a bit of instability in exchange for it.

While there are Linux operating systems which cater for this need without compiling programs, they do have a few drawbacks. For example, software that doesn’t frequently release set package versions is harder to keep up to date in a repository, than installing from source.

This is because binary packages are usually made from official releases of programs. As such, changes between these versions are usually not taken into account. By compiling your own software from source, you can benefit immediately from these changes.

It’s also possible that your Linux operating system doesn’t have the software you want pre-made for you. If that’s the case, installing it from source is your only option.

You Can Pick and Choose

ffmpeg features

Another benefit to using source packages is that you gain more control over the programs that you install. When installing from a binary repository, you’re restricted in the ways you can customize your packages.

For example, look at FFmpeg, the command-line-based audio and video converter. By default, it comes with a huge number of features, some of which you might never even touch. For instance, JACK audio support is available in FFmpeg, even though this software is usually used in production environments only.

Compiling FFmpeg allows you to remove the things you don’t want from it, leaving it lighter and tailored to your needs. And the same applies to other heavyweight programs.

When resources are scarce, removing features can be a great way of lightening the load. It’s no wonder that Chrome OS, found on many low-end computers, is based off Gentoo Linux. Gentoo, being source-based, compiles a lot of its software, potentially making these systems run much lighter.

Why Not Install With Both?

While you probably won’t want to compile packages on a daily basis, it’s something useful to keep in mind. That said, with new universal package formats available from sites such as the Snap Store and Flathub, you’re less likely to need to build from source to get the latest software.

Read the full article: Binary vs. Source Packages: Which Should You Use?



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If you’re over 75, catching covid-19 can be like playing Russian roulette

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Are you hiding from covid-19? I am. The reason is simple: the high chance of death from the virus. 

I was reminded of the risk last week by this report from the New York City health department and Columbia University which estimated that on average, between March and May, the chance of dying if you get infected by SARS-CoV-2 was 1.45%.

That’s higher than your lifetime chance of getting killed in a car wreck. That’s every driver cutting you off, every corner taken too fast, every time you nearly dozed off on the highway, all crammed into one. That’s not a disease I want to get. For someone my mother’s age, the chance of death came to 13.83% but ranged as high as 17%. That’s roughly 1 in 6, or the chance you’ll lose at Russian roulette. That’s not a game I want my mother to play.

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The rate at which people are dying from the coronavirus has been estimated many times and is calculated in different ways. For example, if you become an official covid-19 “case” on the government’s books, your death chance is more like 5%, because you’re sick enough to have sought out help and to have been tested. 

But this study instead calculated the “infection fatality ratio,” or IFR. That’s the chance you die if infected at all. This is the real risk to keep in view. It includes people who are asymptomatic, get only a sniffle, or tough it out at home and never get tested. 

Because we don’t know who those people who never got tested are, IFR figures are always an estimate, and the 1.45% figure calculated for New York is higher than most others, many of which fluctuate around 1%. That could be due to higher rates of diabetes and heart disease in the city, or to estimates used in the study. 

It’s also true that your personal odds of dying from covid-19 will differ from the average. Location matters—cruise ship or city—and so do your sex, your age, and whether you have preexisting health conditions. If you’re in college, your death odds are probably lower by a factor of a hundred, though if you’re morbidly obese, they go back up. Poor health—cancer, clogged arteries—also steeply increase what scientists call the “odds ratio” of dying. 

The biggest factor, though, is age.  I looked at the actuarial tables, and the chance of death for a man in my age group (I’m 51) is around 0.4% per year from all causes. So if I get covid-19, my death chance is probably three times my annual all-cause annual risk (since I am a man, my covid-19 risk is higher than the average). Is that a chance I can live with? Maybe, but the problem is that I have to take that extra risk right now, all up front, not spread out over time where I can’t see or worry about it. 

On Twitter, some readers complained that average risks don’t tell them much about how to think or act. They have a point. What’s a real-life risk that’s similar to a 1.45% chance of dying? It wasn’t easy to think of one, since mathematically, you can’t encounter such a big risk very often. Skydiving, maybe?  According to the US Parachute Association, there’s just one fatality for every 220,301 jumps. It would take 3,200 jumps to equal the average risk of death from covid. 

Risk perceptions differ, but it’s the immense difference in IFR risk for the young (under 25) and the elderly (over 75) that really should complicate the reopening discussion. Judging from the New York data, Grandpa’s death chances from infection are 1,000 times that of Junior. So yes, we need schools to keep kids occupied, learning, and healthy. And for them, thank goodness, the chances of death are very low. But reopening schools and colleges has the ugly side effect that those with the lowest risk could be, in effect,  putting a gun to the head of those with the highest (although there is still much we do not know about how transmissible the virus is among children).

Decent odds

The virus is now spreading fast again in the US, after the country failed to settle on a strong mitigation plan. At the current rate of spread—40,000 confirmed cases a day (and maybe five to 10 times that in reality)—it’s only two years until most people in the US have been infected. It means we’re pointed toward what, since the outset, has been seen as the worst-case scenario: a couple of hundred million infected and a quarter-million deaths. 

By now you might be wondering what your own death risk is. Online, you can find apps that will calculate it, like one at covid19survivalcalculator.com, which employs odds ratios from the World Health Organization.  I gave it my age, gender, body mass index, and underlying conditions and learned that my overall death risk was a bit higher than the average. But the site also wanted to account for my chance of getting infected in the first place. After I told it I was social distancing and mostly wearing a mask, and my rural zip code, the gadget thought I had only a 5% of getting infected. 

I clicked, the page paused, and the final answer appeared: “Survival Probability: 99.975%”. 

Those are odds I can live with. And that’s why I am not leaving the house.



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