The Robots are Coming... To Logistics
Perhaps not an exaggeration – it sounds like the storyline for a science fiction movie, but we are at the early stages of a real revolution in logistics that could end up in the realms of science fiction. Let’s look at the warehouse automation trends that took off in 2018 and are set to dominate in a very dynamic technological environment in 2019.
Challenges Driving Automation in Logistics
The huge increase in complexity of operations and rising labour shortages are arguably two of the biggest challenges currently affecting logistics operations:
- Complexity issues range from a proliferation of products through to omnichannel retailing requiring small order picking and substantial reverse logistics operations to accommodate the rise in returns. The changing shape of retail driven by eCommerce will increase the need for logistics fulfilment centres and distribution centres with small order pick and pack capability.
- We know labour availability and skills are in short supply in the logistics industry, and by inference will become ever more expensive, all compounded by the uncertainty of Brexit. Employment rates are running at 75.7% of the UK population aged between 16-64, (ONS July 2018), the highest levels since similar records began in the 1970’s. As an industry we struggle to attract new people into logistics - and it will not get any easier.
- An added consideration is weight lifting limitations on human operators. Local labour laws have been a contributing factor towards greater automation in Scandinavia, Benelux, France and Germany.
Warehouse Technology Trends 2019
Increasingly we should be looking for future logistics solutions in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) - an important aspect to many robotic solutions. Robotics in manufacturing has been well established for many years and applications within warehouse operations will become more mainstream. Currently being developed within the larger logistics organisations but as technologies become more established the whole industry, regardless of scale, will need to embrace it.
- Many warehouse operations have some form of mechanised material handling solutions to improve productivity; fork lift trucks, conveyors, sorters, product to picker systems to automatic storage and retrieval systems (ASRS). The easier jobs in the warehouse have always been the quick wins for automation. Davies & Robson client projects have historically involved designing automated pallet movers in VNA, ASRS solutions and numerous other product to picker systems.
- Pallet stacking robots and robot de-layering are also well established undertaking repetitive tasks that can be mechanised reasonably easily. Container de-stuffing robots have been developed by some third party logistics operators to assist in this very high volume and labour intensive activity.
- Collaborative robots directly supporting human activity such as independent load carrying robots that can, for example, move a completed picked pallet to a loading bay determining their own route through a warehouse are becoming increasingly common.
- Piece picking robots are another area of development, with the ability to move around a warehouse and pick items from shelves at multiple levels using an extendable arm with grip and sucker technology. They will become more sophisticated as they are developed in differing operations in conjunction with AI.
- Other systems are based upon the product to picker concept. These robots sequence the product presentation, usually the shelving unit and appropriate pick shelf to the pick station, reducing picker travel time, improving pick productivity and space utilisation.
- A picker is still required to complete the final product selection and transfer to a transit unit. Amazon is estimated to use in excess of 100,000 of these robots worldwide within their fulfilment centres.
- Robotic arms picking varying size whole cases or trays onto a mixed pallet are being used, for example, in grocery operations to allow individual store orders to be completed.
- Within industry robotic hands have traditionally been based upon a pincher concept or vacuum cap designed for the specific product being moved, and therefore not easily transferred to a logistics picking environment. The biggest challenge is the replication of the human product pick using the hand and associated human control decisions. Consider the many decisions you may take and coordinate when picking up an individual item, (shape, fragility, weight, size etc), and the senses used to control the action.
- Development will require sophisticated sensors and AI machine learning equivalent to human knowledge acquired from previous experiences. Development of this technology is also vexing other industries such as agricultural fruit picking, so we can share experience and expertise, but expect progress within the next few years.
Should logistics businesses be investing in this technology?
- Many automated and robotic systems are well developed, and it is often the case of establishing suitability of the technology within the logistics operation. This requires the analysis of various factors to justify the investment and minimise the business risk against profile variations.
- The potential flexibility of some of the robotic technologies may reduce the risks traditionally viewed with large automated systems where product profile changes can mean the systems do not deliver as originally intended.
- Robotics will no longer be the domain of just the larger businesses who have driven much of the development to date. Some of these robotic solutions can be adapted and utilised in a small traditional warehouse complementing existing staff.
- Investment in systems will still be costly. As in any business case this must be offset against a cost determined by a methodology for assessing the increasing risk of labour supply shortages, increasing labour cost, and business continuity with all the associated service level implications.
- With the introduction of any new system or technology it is important to consider the impact upon operational processes and current staff. The objections could range from taking jobs to changing working practices.
- Humans could be left with the highly repetitive complex tasks removing the variety interest and job satisfaction in warehouse operations. Failure to appropriately manage these impacts can often be a cause of poor implementation performance.
A final note: In this rapidly changing area you can be quickly left behind – tomorrow a robotic solution may be your best investment.
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