It is difficult to assess how robotic warehouse systems have impacted enterprise performance. In this article, we will try to clarify the main aspects and advantages of automated warehouse robots. But what are we talking about, precisely?
Robotic warehouse systems are automatic systems, specific software, and, in fact, robots, the purpose of which is to maintain warehouse facilities. This includes the transportation of goods, optimization of logistics tasks, and their full or partial automation. In connection with neural network development, the complete robotization of warehouses is only a matter of time.
Today, robotic warehouse systems play a significant role, changing the very concept of the industry. It also creates several global issues related to jobs and the possible full automation of work processes, not only related to warehouses and logistics systems.
Every year, technology is becoming more advanced and efficient. In this article, we will consider the warehouse robots, how to use them, and more.
Let’s start with the fundamental misconception regarding the very concept of “robotic” and how it relates to warehouse management. In the view of many, a robot is a fantastically complex arrangement that has been designed in Japan for twenty years. Yes and no. Indeed, many of us have seen the impressive performance of Boston Dynamics and its humanoid robots. However, when it comes to production, we are open for optimal solutions. These decisions relate to the transport of goods, order fulfillment, and internal logistics. This includes entire families of robots of varying degrees of complexity, which we will study more closely.
Types of warehouse robotics
Here we look at the main types of robots used in the warehouse industry:
This technology has proven itself in production and distribution. Such a robot is a limb with several joints, created to manipulate various objects: movement, rise, rotation. With such capabilities, the articulated arm can perform various storage tasks. This includes the reception of goods, assembly, and disassembly of the products. Such a robot can work with a heavy load and dangerous conditions for humans, which positively affects work safety. Besides, articulated robotic arms can take on some of the tasks of receiving and packing cargo, which is traditionally done by labor. They can also perform palletization.
Such robots can move and navigate through the warehouse without human intervention, transporting cargo to various locations, and much more. There are multiple variations of these robots, each of which opens up additional functionality for warehouse needs. AMRs do not depend on a clearly defined route like AGV and AGC (which we will discuss below). AMRs use routes built on physical objects: wires, sensors, or magnetic tapes mounted on the floor. This can be combined with the use of cameras or LiDAR to avoid obstacles, if necessary.
This automated warehouse technology is aimed at processing inventory, transferring cargo, and placing it in the warehouse. In most cases, AS / RS is used together with software to solve specific problems within a single operation. As in AMR, there is a wide selection of AS / RS, where each model performs particular tasks and works with predefined types of cargo. They can be used as shuttles that operate following the established route, or as cranes that manipulate goods on the line.
Note: here, it is worthwhile to devote time to G2P (Goods to person) technology, which can be called similar to AS / RS, and is often perceived as a child category. The difference lies in its application, but the principle remains the same: the system itself sends the SKU to the receiving station, after which the operator performs more detailed tasks.
These technologies can significantly optimize the work in the warehouse, taking on tasks that do not require specialized knowledge. This way, you can delegate more sophisticated tasks to your employees.
It’s hard to talk about AGV without mentioning AGC (Automated Guided Carts). These are probably the most “robotic” robots on our list that will appeal to science fiction lovers. They are used to automate the transportation of goods between locations in the warehouse. How exactly they perform tasks and how they are oriented in space depends on which model we are talking about. Some use magnetic tapes or marks that are physically highlighted on the surface. For more complex processes, the robot will also include the use of cameras, infrared light, LiDAR, and other sensor technologies. This is necessary for more complex navigation along the route.
The main difference between AGV and AGC is load limitations. AGCs cannot handle the same heavy loads as automated guided vehicles. Ultimately, these technologies can perform the tasks that the forklift operator faces, moving products around the warehouse and placing them at different heights.
Why may you use these technologies?
The main advantage of the robot is that it can work continuously without losing the efficiency and quality of the tasks performed. Such potential conceals enormous benefits. As a warehouse manager, you can save a significant amount of money for wages, as well as forget about the human factor that leads to damage to the goods. Besides, the use of these technologies protects against the harmful effects of dynamics in the labor market. This applies to both the reception of products and their sorting and packaging. All of the above will allow you to establish a fully automatic process, every detail in which works perfectly.
What is the situation in the global market? According to several studies, since these technologies are warmly welcomed among potential customers, and their circle is continually expanding, by 2025, a market is expected to grow with an estimated value of $ 27 billion. This is also due to the era of the Internet of Things and a strong foothold in the e-commerce market, where warehouse operations are fundamental to the industry.
How to use warehouse robots?
As mentioned earlier, the latest warehouse automation technologies have quickly found application in various distribution centers in many countries. Such techniques can optimize efficiency in many components on which the entire warehouse workflow is based. It is not only convenient and practical but also beneficial. Many investors reported a full payback of 6 to 12 months.
However, the world of robots is far from fiction, since not all responsibilities can be transferred to technology, and some are easier to leave for people. At this stage of development, a competently distributed combination of partial automation with the workforce can be most beneficial. In this section, we will consider how to achieve such results and in which cases it is correct to use these technologies.
Warehouse management. The presence of the human factor should never be ruled out. Those familiar with the warehouse industry understand what one reckless move or one incorrect journal entry can cost. It is natural, and it has been so for centuries. However, it was difficult to predict that the factor of human error can be excluded from work in the warehouse. Automation of the processes of loading and unloading goods implies impeccable mathematical calculation and accuracy of work. This also applies to the account. In automated warehouses (in most cases), two types of terrain scanning are used: lasers and cameras. Laser scanning is used to work with barcodes and flexible packaging of complex shapes. Cameras, despite the high cost, can scan even damaged barcodes.
Consider more specific tasks that can be automated using new technologies:
How automated warehouse robots navigate?
For navigating robots, various systems are used with varying degrees of detail and efficiency for moving around the warehouse. Let’s look at the most popular solutions that robots are equipped with.
Wires. This type of navigation is called physical. The robot follows the physical object in the warehouse – a wire. This does not mean that tangled wire bundles will be scattered throughout the entire warehouse. In this case, it is pulled under the floor, and the inductive sensors of the robots fix the electromagnetic field that emits a current stream in the wiring. This is a convenient and straightforward system that eliminates the need to change the flooring, thereby limiting traffic.
Rails. This system is similar to the previous one. However, a rail system is used here, which is installed following the optimal route for the movement of robots.
Magnetic tape. Another example is the use of a physical object for navigation. This is much like how navigation is implemented using the wiring. Equipped with sensors that capture the magnetic field emitted by magnetic tape, robots will move following how these magnetic tapes are placed.
Geolocation. Using a previously compiled reference map of the warehouse, robots move around the warehouse and go around the obstacles marked on the map.
LiDAR. Light Detection and Ranging. This is an advanced field. In this case, the robot is equipped with a navigation system that sends a series of laser beams to determine the distance to the object in the work area. Before starting work, this system creates a complete map of the room, according to which the robot will move around the warehouse. The application of such a solution does not require any changes in the internal infrastructure of the warehouse. In combination with machine learning, this navigation system is gaining popularity every year.
Labels. This system includes a three-dimensional laser rangefinder, thanks to which the robot can identify objects and sort them into categories in libraries (pallets, shelves, walls, etc.). In combination with the fourth item on our list (geolocation) – a warehouse map, this navigation system allows you to mark the robot’s location relative to other objects in the warehouse. Robots receive commands by reading information from semantic labels that contain information such as “take four pallets from sector A to sector B, then return to sector A”
Visual navigation. In this case, laser sensors and photometric cameras (equipped with CCD arrays) are used to determine and memorize the warehouse infrastructure features.
Robots and security
The use of automated warehouse robots implies two areas: collaborative and mixed. The second option is the most popular and useful today. In this case, robots work together with people, bringing goods for packaging, and sorting. At the same time, people and robots practically do not interact, except for repair work. An excellent example of this approach is Amazon Robotics. Here, the placement and movement of goods are carried out by robots that are guided by QR codes marked on the floor. The workflow is regulated by employees who are behind the work area. Today, Amazon is far from the only example of how these technologies can be applied effectively. You can find examples of companies such as Geek+ and Fabric. These are good examples of how humans and robots can work together.
“Our company’s working principle is based on the distribution of labor between workers and the Fabric automated system. Currently, robots are too limited to take on the whole process, and performance indicators have remained unsatisfactory.” Steven Hornyak, Fabric CCO
Before you understand precisely how the automatic robotic system will be implemented in your warehouse, you need to know what you expect from it:
Without understanding the big picture, it’s dangerous to introduce global changes to your warehouse infrastructure. In this case, you may face severe consequences and the need to make more sweeping changes. But if you are taking into account all the niceties – you will benefit significantly. If you are interested in creating a system that will operate inside your warehouse, taking all the nuances into account, you can leave a request by filling out a short form by clicking on the Get in touch button in the upper right corner.
I've been leading a tech department specializing in eLearning applications and Business Intelligence for 10 years