From conveyor belts to aerial drones, warehouse automation has been around for decades. But as the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a massive eCommerce boom and reshaped supply chains, warehouse robotics is proving to be not only beneficial to logistics and supply chain management but also essential for any business that wants to thrive in the years to come.
Whether you’re a business owner or third-party logistics provider, familiarizing yourself with warehouse robotics technology can help you gain a competitive edge and future-proof your business.
What is Warehouse Robotics?
Warehouse robotics is the use of automated systems and machines (or robots) to assist in essential warehouse tasks. That said, it refers not only to the machines but also to the software used to control each one.
Warehouse robotics is part of a larger system called warehouse automation.
A Brief History of Robots in the Warehouse
Warehouse robotics has evolved over the years from simple AGVs that carry heavy materials across warehouse floors to collaborative bots or “cobots”, mobile robots that can be programmed to follow workers around and perform a range of tasks.
The origin of automation technology in the warehouse can be traced back to 1913 when Henry Ford first implemented the moving assembly line, a system of conveyor belts that allowed Ford to produce automobiles at record speed. This revolutionized the manufacturing industry and ushered in a new era of utilizing technology to produce and deliver goods more efficiently. In the following years, warehouses would adopt the use of forklifts and hand trucks to shuttle large quantities around.
By the 1950s, the first AGVs were introduced. These driverless vehicles could move heavy loads along a predetermined route guided by magnetic sensors.
American inventor George Charles Devol, also known as the father of robotics, invented the first robotic arm, Unimate in 1954. Its use became popular in industrial applications by the 1960s, when other innovations such as the first automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) took off as well. Today’s AS/RSs store and retrieve items for workers, allowing humans to remain at their stations and out of danger.
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the rise of integrating hardware and software to create a unified system. By the 2000s, warehouse automation involved the Internet of Things (IoT), interconnected “smart” devices that could interact over a wireless network.
Artificial intelligence-powered robots, aerial drones and computer vision systems are among the latest technologies that are changing our approach to automation in the warehouse.
Use Cases: What Kinds of Tasks Can Warehouse Robots Help With?
Warehouse robots can aid in a myriad of warehouse tasks, including:
Picking refers to the process of locating and retrieving products to fulfill an order. Industrial robots can be used to either pick out products themselves and transport them to the next location or assist workers with things like identification and verification.
Sorting is a complex task that is often prone to error. Using cameras, sensors and conveyor systems, robots can speed the sorting process up and reduce errors at the same time.
Moving massive amounts of inventory across large areas is labor-intensive, time-consuming and even potentially dangerous. Things like automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which can transport goods along set routes without any human guidance, take away the stress of mobilizing products from one part of the warehouse to another – giving workers more time to perform other tasks.
Warehouse automation systems can keep track of inventory levels and notify workers when stocks are low. Advanced robots like aerial drones can also scan inventory and count items, then update the warehouse management system.
Pick-and-place robots can quickly pick products up and place them into boxes or bags along conveyor belts. Using computer vision systems, some robots can also calculate the ideal box size for different types of products.
Benefits of Warehouse Robotics
Here are some of the benefits of implementing robotic technology in warehouses and fulfillment centers:
Automate Tedious, Repetitive Tasks
By automating routine and menial tasks around the warehouse, robots can free human employees up to tackle more complex challenges that require careful judgment and higher levels of skill.
One major fear that people tend to have around robots is whether they will replace human workers. Experts say that this isn’t likely to happen soon. Instead, humans will be “crew chiefs” and have more managerial roles over their robot teams. The aim is to improve the quality of experience for warehouse workers, who face burnout from doing repetitive tasks day in and day out.
Reduce Physical Strain on Warehouse Workers
They don’t call manual labor back-breaking work for no reason. Repetitive warehouse work can lead to overexertion and overuse injuries like nerve injuries, muscle strain, rotator cuff injuries, neck and spine injuries, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. The work’s repetitive and monotonous nature can also lead to increased stress, low morale and burnout.
With the help of robots, which can perform a bulk of the strenuous and repetitive tasks involved in running a warehouse, businesses can keep their employees healthier and happier for longer.
Strengthen Warehouse Safety
Aside from being physically and mentally taxing, warehouse work can be dangerous as well. A survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked transportation and warehousing among the private sectors with the highest rates of nonfatal occupational illnesses and injuries.
Some of the top causes of warehouse accidents include slips, falls and trips, manual handling injuries, forklift injuries and injuries caused by falling objects. But all these can be avoided with the help of warehouse robotics. Built-in sensors and LiDAR scanners can keep AMRs from bumping into people and objects in their way, mobile robots and AS/RS can replace manual forklifts and aerial drones can keep workers from manually counting tall stacks of inventory – reducing their risk of falling from dangerous heights.
Lower the Likelihood of Errors
Human error can compromise the workplace in a variety of ways, including damaging expensive machinery, affecting the quality of products, causing accidents and injuries and impacting a business’ overall profitability.
Warehouse automation and robotics can reduce the incidences of errors caused by human workers by improving accuracy and efficiency in warehouse operations. Complicated processes are relegated to robots that can multitask far better than any human worker, and physically demanding tasks are performed by machines that can handle much larger loads.
Make More Accurate Predictions
Given that robots can perform warehouse tasks day in and day out without tiring, needing breaks or getting distracted by other tasks, it’s easier for warehouses to predict how much time it takes to process orders and get them to customers.
With artificial intelligence, warehouses can also make more accurate predictions when it comes to demand surges, inventory stockouts, machine maintenance, etc.
Create a More Adaptable Workforce
Aside from predicting demand surges, warehouse robotics can also help your warehouse adapt to busy seasons. Instead of hiring and training new employees, which can take several weeks and cost your business money, you can rely on your robotics to shoulder the load.
Boost Customer Satisfaction
With a faster, more efficient and less error-laden fulfillment process, it’s easier to keep customers happy with your service. And with more helping hands (albeit non-human ones) on the warehouse floor and a centralized hub for all customer, order and supplier information via your warehouse management system, you can provide more seamless and accurate customer service.
Bolster Your Brand Image
When customers notice the consistency of your service, you create a brand image that is synonymous with quality, efficiency and innovation. Soon enough, you’ll establish yourself as a brand that can keep up with (and potentially even outpace) the leaders in your industry.
Types of Warehouse Robotics
There are many different kinds of warehouse robots. These are some of the most popular ones in use today:
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
AS/RS are software-controlled systems that can place and retrieve goods automatically. These systems comprise several components that work together to speed up order fulfillment.
These are just a few examples of components that fall under AS/RS:
- Unit loads or machines store large loads of over 1000 pounds. These handle goods that are stored vertically on stacked pallets reaching heights of up to 100 feet.
- Vertical lift modules use an automatic inserter/extractor that stores and retrieves items that are stacked vertically on a column of trays.
- Horizontal carousels are made up of a series of rotating bins and are used to store small parts and pieces.
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
AGVs are independently operated, self-propelled vehicles guided along defined pathways. These robots can navigate warehouse floors. Instead, they use magnetic strips, floor sensors or wire-guided navigation to get around.
Modern AGVs utilize cameras and/or laser-guided systems to move around, eliminating the need for external tracks or tapes on the floor.
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
An autonomous mobile robot or AMR is like an AGV in the sense that it can move around a warehouse without human guidance or assistance. However, unlike AGVs, AMRs don’t need tracks or routes.
Using sensors and GPS systems, autonomous robots can move independently, create their own routes, reroute when faced with obstacles and perform a variety of tasks such as:
- Transporting goods from station to station
- Accompanying workers through various stages of fulfillment
- Processing information on packages
“Cobots” or Collaborative Robots
Cobots are robots that work hand-in-hand with human workers. Cobots can be programmed to perform a variety of tasks across different workstations, typically repetitive activities like picking, placing and packing goods.
Unlike traditional robots, which are typically isolated for safety reasons, cobots can work side-by-side with human staff. They’re equipped with sensors and other safety technologies that pause their movements when they run into people.
In the warehousing industry, aerial drones are mainly used for inventory management. Using cameras and sensors, drones can take on the task of inventory scanning from several feet in the air, eliminating the need for workers and pickers for manual inventory counting.
Should You Bring Robots Into Your Warehouses?
Robotics brings all kinds of benefits to a warehouse, including improved efficiency, lower error rates and a happier workforce.
And although there are sizable upfront costs to warehouse automation, they pay off eventually. Studies show that increased use of robotics can lead to a 25 to 30% reduction in average labor and manufacturing costs.
As eCommerce grows, so does the demand for faster and more accurate fulfillment. And with the way warehouse automation and robotics have advanced in the past decade, it’s become clear that robots are becoming more of a necessity in the warehouse.
If you want to stay ahead of the game and keep your employees happy, then perhaps it’s time to look into robotics for your warehouse.
Warehouse Robotics Technology FAQs
What types of robots are used in the Amazon warehouse?
Amazon uses a combination of different kinds of robots in their warehouses, including automated guided vehicles by Kiva Systems, a fully autonomous mobile robot called Proteus and a robotic work cell that picks, segregates and places packages into a GoCart called Cardinal.
What company makes warehouse robots?
Some of the top robotics companies that make warehouse robots include ABB, Kuka, Yaskawa, Fetch Robotics, inVia Robotics, Locus Robotics, 6 River Systems, Omron and Daifuku.
How are robotics used in warehouses?
Robotics are used in warehouses to automate tedious and repetitive tasks, improve worker safety and efficiency and boost overall productivity and profitability.