The term robot can conjure up associations of mechanical versions of humans. Robots are typically used to replace humans for activities that are dangerous or repetitive. Rather than mimicking humans, these activities can be split into individual tasks for which specific robots can be used, for example by splitting up order-picking into item selection and transport. This results in very differently looking robots designed for their specific tasks.
Currently, there are many warehouse robot solutions available that focus on the transport element of order processing. Picking robots are available, but due to the sophisticated nature of the task the technology is not as widely available yet.
The main robot types include:
- An autonomous shuttle that brings storage units akin to shelving to pick stations. After a picker takes the required items, the robot returns the storage unit to stock.
- A robot that follows a picker, who selects items from stock for the robot to take to a packing station. This can be a small robot or automated pallet truck.
- Pick robots that take items from shelf or pallet locations to pass on to a transport robot.
These robots differ from conventional automated guided vehicle systems in that they do not require optical or wire guidance. Instead they navigate using existing racking and warehouse features or floor based labels. As a result they are easier to install and adapt in an existing warehouse environment.
Robots vary in levels of autonomy in decision making. For example some will determine their own route, whilst others are routed by a traffic control system. The latter options minimises congestion in an environment with multiple robots.
When robots operate amongst people and MHE traffic, they need more sophisticated systems to avoid obstacles and collisions. A robotic system segregated from human traffic can operate more basic robots as there are no unknown obstacles or movements to take into account, and hence all traffic is known to the control system.
Why is it relevant now? Market developments
In 2012 Amazon bought Kiva, a leader in warehouse robotics and uses their capability to fit out a number of their warehouses with robots. By 2016 it is quoted that Amazon operates 30,000 robots worldwide. In the UK the company will open its third UK warehouse using robotics in 2017.
What is unique in this scenario is that Amazon limits access to a technology for the logistics market. Existing installations of other former Kiva customers are supported for the term of their contracts but no additional robots are provided.
A number of suppliers is filling this gap by offering similar robot technologies, but development and implementation takes time to catch up.
Are we there yet? Level of maturity
Using the traditional product life cycle of introduction, growth, maturity, and decline robotics for warehousing is likely to be at the late introduction or early growth stage. The technologies used are quite established, but a significant investment is still required in normalisation and getting robots to the open market.
As well as established start-ups a number of the major warehouse automation providers are bringing robotic solutions to the market. This could provide the ground swell to take robotics through the growth stage.
The business case for robotics
Historically, the logistics industry has been conservative to adopt new technologies.
However, there are a number of drivers for change:
- The growth of ecommerce has changed the mix of pick order profiles, especially in multi-channel operations.
- New entrants to both retail and logistics design their fulfilment without the constraints of existing warehouse facilities.
- Automation elements are more robust and available at lower costs.
The business case for robotics is supported by a number of elements:
- Reduce perambulation by taking goods to man. This is not a new concept, but the current systems using conveyors or cranes are more capital intensive and less flexible than robots. To a lesser extend perambulation can also be reduced by batch picking with manual methods.
- Increase storage density for dedicated robotic systems as they require no human access, and can operate smaller aisles. This is partly negated by the limited height usage.
- The greater productivity rate does not only provide a labour cost benefit, but also addresses the increasing challenge of recruitment
- The modular nature of robotics makes it easier to flex capacity or adapt to other changes in the demand and product profiles.
- At least two suppliers offer robotics as a service, meaning that users pay a cost per pick. This addresses the challenge of capital cost of automated systems.
- Robotics offers the greatest benefit in operations with a large SKU range of smaller items, with sufficient volume to generate labour savings to offset the capital required.
However, due to the diverse nature of most logistics operations, robotics is likely to be one of a number of pick methods to be applied in a warehouse. Integration with the rest of the operations and systems is key to the success of robotics.
For comparison, in the last 20 years, voice picking has moved from a few small scale implementations to commonplace warehouse technology.
Over the last 4 years, Amazon has accelerated the use of robotics through wide scale implementations. The range of robotics solutions on offer by other suppliers is growing. The rate of change in customer demand and technology is greater than 20 years ago, so don’t expect it to take another 16 years for robotics to be commonplace in warehousing.