Warehouse Robotics: Everything You Need to Know
Imagine, your warehouse labor costs are cut by 70%. Your warehouse operates during the day and night with equal costs. Your inventory counts are updated daily.
Believe it or not, this is a reality with today’s warehouse robotics.
By the end of this post, you’ll learn how you can duplicate these results by utilizing warehouse robotics to your operations. We’re going to cover a lot, including:
- The history of robots in supply chains. You won’t believe how far we’ve come!
- Why warehouses are now choosing to introduce robots into their operations
- The primary types of robots that can be used in a warehouse
- The benefits of robotic warehouse automation
- How robots improve warehouse performance
History of Robots in Supply Chain
The robots to be used in supply chain operations were found in manufacturing. George Devol filed the first robotics patent in 1954 (granted in 1961), and his company, Unimation, produced the first industrial robot in 1956. That first robot was capable of moving material about a dozen feet or so.
General Motors followed suit and installed their first robot in a plant in New Jersey in 1962. For a long time, robots were only suited for work in industrial manufacturing because they weren’t safe for people to be around while they were in use.
The first robots were large robotic arms that could move according to programming. nnovators knew that people would dislike machines taking over people’s jobs, so theyinitially focused on shifting potentially dangerous or harmful jobs to robots. This strategy was largely successful and led to robotics technology being adopted fordangeroussituations, such as welding and lifting heavy machinery.
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Why is Warehouse Robotic Automation Surging?
Robotics engineers have worked hard over the last few decades to integrate new technological developments, like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), with automated robotics technology. Innovative companies that have warehouses in their supply chains love the results that effective automation can bring.
But what allows robots to operate in warehouses autonomously? It’s primarily three things:
- AI and machine learning
- Better sensors and response capability
- Warehouse management software
Artificial Intelligence in Your Warehouse
According to McKinsey & Co, the transportation and logistics industry stands to gain 89% incremental value over time through AI adoption. Retail could see 87% incremental value over time. So no matter how you analyze it, your business can benefit from AI adoption.
Artificial intelligence generally refers to a computer’s ability to execute cognitive functions we normally only expect from human minds, such as learning, reasoning, and problem-solving.
Often, AI is divided into two categories for supply chain application: augmentation and automation.
Augmentation: AI that assists humans in their day-to-day tasks.
Automation: AI that can function without human interference.
Sensors and Response Capability Have Made Robots Safer
When robots were first introduced into the supply chain, we didn’t have the knowledge to allow them to perceive their surroundings. Now, in addition to visual and auditory sensors, warehouse robots can be equipped with thermal and haptical sensors. Thermal sensors measure ambient temperature on a surface. Haptical sensors allow robots to perceive touch.
When paired with AI and machine learning, the data from those sensors allows robots to make decisions based on input from their surroundings.
Warehouse Management Software
Integrated warehouse management software (WMS) or 3PL systems form the hub of your warehouse operations. Information can flow seamlessly from your sales channels to the order fulfillment system, and then to picking and packing. Accurate data is what keeps things moving without a hitch.
Some of the robot types we’ll describe later in this article come with a WMS as part of their system. However, most of the robot types we’re going to explore can be integrated into your warehouse operations regardless of your operating software. That said, you still need accurate inventory data to feed the robots to optimally benefit from their use.
As we mentioned, AI allows robots to make decisions based on data. Therefore, incorrect data can result in incorrect decisions.
What Sort of Robots Could Work in Your Warehouse?
Automated Guided Vehicles
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and their smaller cousins, automated guided carts (AGCs), transport inventory around your warehouse. They normally follow magnetic stripes or a track laid out on your warehouse floor.
For AGVs that don’t follow a track, they possess additional safety scanners that allow them to be used with manual vehicles. They’re also loaded with a map of your warehouse and the locations of all inventory.
2XL, a logistics company in Belgium, used automated guided vehicles to significantly improve their warehouse efficiency. They changed their model to include robotics in order to increase security and stability. Their large warehouses meant that workers were spending most of their time just moving from one area to the next, so it only made sense to transfer that work to robotics technology
In addition to saving valuable time that people could use elsewhere, 2XL found that using robotics technology meant they were able to work around the clock. AGVs work nights and weekends at the same cost as operating during the day, which improves warehouse efficiency and cuts costs. AGVs only require 8 minutes to recharge, which means they spend very little time out of commission.
Because of the amazing productivity and cost-saving capabilities of AGVs, the new system paid for itself just one year after installation.
Autonomous Mobile Robots
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are like AGVs in that they use sensor technology to deliver inventory around a warehouse. However, unlike AGVs, autonomous mobile robots don’t require a set track or preset route between locations. AMRs understand their environment through the use of computers, onboard sensors and maps.
These small and nimble robots have the ability to identify the information on each package and sort it precisely. AMRs can move throughout the warehouse because they create their own routes based on the operation needed. They can reroute when necessary and avoid obstacles in their environment. These robots offer efficiency, accuracy and security during the sorting process.
AMR robots also help to cut down on redundant processes like sorting so that workers can take on more creative and collaborative roles. Humans are sometimes more prone to error when they find a task too boring. Today’s robots, on the other hand, deliver consistent accuracy regardless of how tedious a process is. As a result, warehouses enjoy a higher level of inventory accuracy.
Not only do AMRs help with the picking and sorting process, but they can also be used to conduct daily inventory cycle counts.
Counting robots like the TagSurveyor can scan inventory from up to 25 feet away thanks to RFID sensors and scanners. Instead of counting inventory every few months, your warehouse could know its inventory count every day. Not only would your inventory data be more accurate, but it would also actively discourage inventory theft. Chinese warehouses are one of the fastest-growing segments in China’s economy. In fact, 40% of the world’s parcels are delivered in China. That equates to 300 million parcels a day.Their desire for speed and accuracy led to the creation of autonomous mobile robots. AMRs can sort up to an impressive 18,000 parcels an hour and reduce manual labor costs by 70%.
Aerial drones have been on everyone’s radar since 2013 when Jeff Bezos introduced the concept of the Amazon “Octocopter” drone that delivers packages straight to their customers’ doors. Although the drone delivery idea has yet to take off, drones still have amazing potential for the logistics industry.
Drones can help optimize warehouse inventory processes by quickly scanning locations for automated inventory. They can connect automatically to your WMS (if your system can integrate) to access and verify existing inventory information.
Aerial drones don’t need markers or lasers for guidance. They use optical systems along with deep learning technologies and computer vision to navigate warehouses. Moreover, theyhey don’t take up valuable space in your warehouse and aren’t likely to get in the way of people or other robotic devices.
Drones can travel quickly to hard-to-reach and dangerous places. They can scan inventory both high and low much faster than a person and keep the most accurate count uploaded immediately into your warehouse inventory management software.
Most of the drones being used today are augmentation robots, controlled by an operator on mobile devices, like in the video below. However, the end goal for aerial drone technology will be to be more autonomous, requiring little to no human assistance.
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) are a technology that moves inventory in and out of storage. It’s typically paired with warehouse execution software that directs operations.
AS/RSs come in different forms depending on the type of tasks, the system needed, or the goods that they will be working with. They can work either as a shuttle on a fixed track or a crane that retrieves goods between aisles. Although, there are now aisle climbing robots, like the Skypod, that can also retrieve customer orders.
Order picking can account for 50% or more of your warehouse labor costs, especially for large warehouses. By cutting down on your number of laborers and time spent on retrieval, workers can concentrate on the more complicated processes, such as packaging and posting goods.
Alibaba, the largest retailer in the world, proved how useful AS/RS can be at their warehouse in China. Using 60 robots, they reduced warehouse labor by 70%. Their robots operate over Wi-Fi to bring inventory to workers to package and post. As a result, their operations skyrocketed and tripled their output.
What Benefits Are Companies Seeing by Adopting Robotics in The Warehouse?
Companies that invest in robotic technology see many tangible and clear benefits to their business. Cutting expenses such as packaging costs and increasing efficiency are some obvious outcomes for most companies, but there are also less obvious advantages to utilizing robotic technology.
Better Warehouse Performance = Higher Profit Margins: Learn how Logiwa customers get up to 100% inventory accuracy and double their customer shipments thanks to increased warehouse efficiency.
Lower Error Rates
Human errors can be costly for businesses, and significantly damageprofits if work has to be done again to correct a mistake. Robots significantly reduce warehouse costs by doing the work correctly the first time, every time.
The reality of retail is that there are busy and slow seasons. Robotics allows warehouses to meet increased capacity demands quickly. During holiday seasons, for example, it can be difficult to hire and train new employees fast enough to keep up with the results of demand forecasting. Robotics make it easier to handle these increases because they canwork around the clock without diminished performance.
Increased Warehouse Safety
Warehouse robotics helps improve facility safety for workers. They take over dangerous jobs that put workers at risk. Now that robots can work effectively side-by-side with humans, robots can take take over more dangerous tasks, such as getting inventory from heights or carrying heavy loads.
In addition to warehouse safety, workers (and companies) can expect an increase in morale as the mundane and dangerous jobs are taken off of human workers’ plates. Many workers have a reduction in anxiety and stress when robots take over a routine or risky part of their job.
Higher Customer Satisfaction
The increase in delivery speed and decrease in human errors will inevitably increase customer satisfaction. Customer service is critical for maintaining and growing any business. The faster your company can execute operations perfectly, the more customers who will come back. You’ll be able to elevate your warehouse ops with a competitive edge.
In addition to better order fulfillment, robotics can afford your workers more time to concentrate on the customer experience. Instead of manual packing slips, robots automate packaging, communication, and follow-up to improve your customer’s experience with your company.
Innovative Brand Image
Besides increased customer satisfaction, robotics can boost your brand image. You can present your company as faster and better than ever. By advertising robotics technology, you signal to potential customers that you are a cutting edge and innovative brand capable of taking on the challenges of the future
Should You Bring Robots into Your Warehouses?
The increase of technology and competition in warehouses means that you need to seriously consider utilizing autonomous robots in your facility. With their ability to improve operations, increase material handling productivity, accuracy, and customer satisfaction:every warehouse can benefit from robots.
Technology continues to improve and robotics can be specialized for different operations, so it would be smart to assess your needs. Consider asking yourself the following:
- Where are your current warehouse operations bottlenecks?
- Do your workers spend a lot of their time retrieving goods in your large warehouse?
- Do you spend too much time taking inventory count?
- Do you frequently find yourself running out of goods because of inaccurate inventory?
These are questions to keep in mind as you try to decide what would work best for your operations. Strategically adding robots to your operation means that you can increase your profits, make your customers happy, and create a safe work environment. The question is not whether your warehouse needs robotic technology, but where to start.
Robotics as a Service (RaaS)
Despite the numerous benefits that robots can offer fulfillment operations, many warehouse operators remain wary about making the change. Luckily, the transition to a hybrid workforce (one which includes humans and robots) does not need to happen all at once. In fact, many robotics companies now function on a subscription basis.
Subscription-based robotics, also known as Robotics as a Service (RaaS), allows customers to pay monthly or annual fees rather than purchasing robots outright like forklifts or other equipment. This is good if you are at the start of your robotics journey because it allows you to transition warehouse jobs over to robots at your own preferred pace and experiment with which robotics best serve your warehouse needs!
With Robots as a Service, you can incorporate robots as part of your warehouse operations without taking on overwhelming financial commitments or stressors that come with deployment, integration, and on-going maintenance. It’s flexible, and allows for robots to be used as temporary workers when demand is high and your bandwidth is low.
You simply pay for your installed machines by the hour, at a cost that’s less than hiring another human employee. Robotics subscriptions prioritize operating expense over capital expense, so every size operation can have access to robotics in the days ahead. Check out Logiwa’s partnership with Locus Robotics to see how combining smart WMS technology with AI-powered robots can transform warehouse operations for total efficiency.