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Advanced Warehouse Automation – Can Robots and Humans coexist?

Advanced Warehouse Automation: Can Robots and Humans coexist?

There is no doubt that automation is part of the future of warehousing. The expansion of e-commerce and omni-channel retailing is adding to the speed at which automation tools are being adopted. The number 1 challenge, in warehouse operations, is to improve efficiency at the least cost. Warehouse automation solutions are continuing to be developed to optimise repetitive tasks and maximise space, leading to increased productivity and faster processes.

Automation in the warehouse comes in two forms: information technology and equipment: they need to work together to deliver results. Digital tools such as mobile smartphones, scanners and sensors work in conjunction with physical machines such as conveyors and forklifts.

Automation without digital technology can be inflexible and task specific. Advanced warehouse automation solutions combine robotics with technology systems to reduce labour-intensive processes. For example, a driverless forklift uses cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) applications to navigate and communicate its location in real-time. Warehouse automation suppliers have become more than vendors, many have become system integrators.

Mobile Robots

The rise in the use of robotics in mid-size DCs is exciting. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) used for transporting goods around the warehouse are especially practical in smaller facilities as they are scalable. AGVs minimise the number of empty and wrong trips because the vehicles automatically drive to a pre-defined location. They follow a program that recognises obstacles, minimises blockages and avoids collisions.

Automated mobile robots (AMRs) are used mainly for moving, picking and sorting. Some have sensors that drive delicate picking tasks such as perishables. AMRs are especially suited to smaller and mid-size warehouses where modular (plug-and-play) solutions can be applied, depending on fluctuations in demand. Conventional conveyors are often being replaced by AMRs which are cheaper, more flexible and take up less space. Mobile robots, when connected with technology tools such as AI, will speed up activities and deliver higher productivity.  

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are computer-driven systems that automate the movement of goods. The equipment varies from cranes, shuttles to lift modules. They need more space and require more infrastructure and are often integrated with a WMS system. AS/RS systems are suitable for more sophisticated and high-volume warehouse operations due to the cost. They are well-established in large distribution operations such as DHL, DSV and Amazon.  Ocado Retail has more than 1000 robots in its facility in Andover, Hampshire that handle millions of items per week.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is an advanced form of business process automation, unrelated to physical robots. It is a “software robot” that can duplicate tasks performed by a human on their computer with further intervention. 

Drones

The application of drones in warehousing operations is growing fast, mainly due to improved hardware and the stability of the software. Battery life is longer and prices are more competitive due to increased competition. Drones are used extensively in inventory management. They have embedded scanners that can count stock automatically and conduct inspections that improve the accuracy of stock control. A big plus is that they can work in tight spaces.

Finding the balance with humans 

Collaborative robots “cobots” are robots that work together with humans. In automotive manufacturing, BMW found that robot-human combinations in their factories were 85% more productive than when working on separate assembly lines. The aim is not to replace humans but to use their valuable skills more efficiently and safely using technology. Well-designed robot+ human tasks will be most successful when training is given priority. Where physical dexterity and strength are no longer prerequisites, job opportunities open to the broader population. Cobots combine human innovation and creativity with system speed and reliability.

The cost challenge

There is a significant investment required for robotic hardware and additional costs to install and integrate it.  However, costs are coming down due to economies of scale and new market entrants.  A variety of cost models are available including Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) where vendors provide a full-service solution. 

The process of warehouse automation

Considering automated solutions for your business is a process that requires you to:

  1. Identify the level of automation you need. 
  2. Define your requirements in detail
  3. Compare the benefits of the best tools available within your budget.
  4. Select the solution provider and implement
  5. Monitor and review

It is important to find the right balance of suitable and affordable technologies whatever your business. SCCG can help you to identify your needs, access vendors, and compare the best tools available for your business. Our warehouse automation consultants will undertake an operational review of existing facilities. This includes analysing business data to understand the product range, material flows, stock and order profiles.

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