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Warehouse Robotics: Everything You Need to Know in 2019

By Ruthie Bowles logiwa-blog-author | Tags: Warehouse Management

Imagine, your warehouse labor costs 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 in today’s warehouses. and their processes are duplicable.

History of Robots in Supply Chain

The first robots in the supply chain 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 installed the 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. The innovators knew that people would dislike machines taking over people’s jobs. As a result they initially focused on shifting jobs dangerous or harmful jobs to robotic technology. This strategy was successful and robotic technology was adopted in potentially dangerous situations, such as welding and lifting heavy machinery.

BONUS: Before you read further, download our Warehouse Management Software Whitepaper to see how Logiwa uses real-time data to help you optimize your warehouses processes.

Why is Robotic Automation Surging in Warehouses?

Robotics engineers have worked hard over the last few decades to mesh new technological developments, like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), with automated robotic 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:

  1. AI and machine learning

  2. Better sensors and response capability

  3. 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 to the supply chain, we didn’t have the knowledge to allow them to perceive their surroundings. In addition to visual and audial sensors, warehouse robots can be equipped them with thermal and haptical sensors as well. 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) can be the hub of your warehouse operations. Information can flow seamlessly from your sales channels to order fulfillment, and then to packing and shipping. Accurate data is what keeps things moving without a hitch.

Some of the robot types we’ll describe later in this article come with WMS, because they’re often part of an entire system. However, most of the robot types we’re going to explore can be integrated into your warehouse, but you still need an accurate data feed to make the most of all robots have to offer.

As we mentioned, AI allows robots to make decisions based on data. But 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 in your warehouse.

For those AGVs that don’t follow a track, they have 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 initially changed their model 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. They decided to transfer that work to robotic technology.

In addition to saving valuable time that people could use elsewhere, 2XL found that the technology meant they were able to work around the clock. AGVs work nights and weekends at the same cost it takes to operate during the day, which both improved efficiency and cut costs. The AGVs also only requires 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 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 the 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 also reroute when necessary and avoid obstacles in their environment. These robots offer efficiency, accuracy and security during the sorting process.

These robots help to cut down on the redundant process of sorting so that workers can take on more creative and collaborative roles. Humans are sometimes more prone to error when they find the job too boring. Today’s robots, on the other hand, deliver consistent accuracy regardless of the tedious nature of the process. As a result, warehouses enjoy a higher level of accuracy.

Not only do AMRs help with the picking and sorting process, but they can also be used to conduct daily inventory checks.

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 it’s inventory counts every day. Not only would your inventory data be more accurate, but it would also discourage inventory theft.

Chinese warehouses are one of the fastest growing segments in their economy. In fact, 40% of the world’s parcels were delivered in China. 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 reduced manual labor costs by 70%.

Aerial Drones

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’ door. Although that idea has yet to take off, drones still have amazing potential for the logistics industry.

Drones can help optimize warehouse inventory processes. The drones’ technology quickly scans locations for automatized inventory. They can connect automatically to your WMS (if your WMS can integrate) to access your existing inventory information.

Aerial drones don’t need markers or lasers for guidance.  They use optical systems alongside deep learning technologies and computer vision to navigate warehouses. They also 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 upload immediately to your WMS.

Most of the drones today are augmentation robots, controlled by their operator on mobile devices, like in the video above. However, the goal is aerial drone technology that’s more autonomous, requiring little to no human assistance.

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) are a technology that brings inventory in and out of storage. It’s typically paired with warehouse execution software that directs the operations. 

AS/RSs come in different forms depending on the type of tasks, the system needed, or the goods that it will be working with. They work either as a shuttle that works on a fixed track or a crane that retrieves goods between aisles. Although, there are now aisle climbing robots, like the Skypod, that 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 the labor 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 human labor by 70%. The robots operate over Wi-Fi to bring inventory to workers to package and post it.  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 and increasing efficiency are some obvious outcomes for most companies, but they also find that their businesses profits from robotic technology in less obvious ways.

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. They potentially lose significant profit if work has to be done again to correct a mistake. Robots significantly reduce the cost by doing the work correctly the first time, every time.

Adaptable Workforce

The reality of retail is that there are busy and slow seasons. Robotics allow warehouses to meet increased capacity demands quickly. During holiday seasons, for example, it can be difficult to hire and train new employees quickly enough to keep up with demand. Robotics make it easier to handle increases because of their ability to work around the clock without diminished performance.

Increased Warehouse Safety

Robotics also improve safety for workers. They take over the dangerous jobs that put your workers at risk. Now that robots can work side-by-side with humans, the robots can take the dangerous parts of the job and workers take over the rest, such as getting inventory from heights or carrying heavy loads.

In addition to safety, workers (and companies) benefit from an increase in morale as the mundane and dangerous jobs are taken off their plate. Many workers have a reduction in anxiety and stress when robots take over the routine and risky parts of their job. Instead, they concentrate on the more creative and collaborative portions.

Higher Customer Satisfaction

The increase in delivery speed and decrease in human errors will also 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 turn your warehouse ops into a competitive edge.

In addition to better order fulfillment, robotics can afford your workers more time to concentrate on the customer experience. Better packaging, communication, and follow-up can all 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 your robotic technology, you signal to potential customers that you are a cutting-edge and innovative brand.

Should You Bring Robots into Your Warehouses?

The increase in 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 productivity, accuracy, and customer satisfaction, every warehouse can benefit from robotics.

Technology continues to improve and robotics can be specialized for different operations, so it would be smart to assess your needs.

  • 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 you and where to start. 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.

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Ruthie Bowles

Written by Ruthie Bowles

Ruthie is a content marketing consultant for Logiwa. Her specialties include small business development and inventory management.