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The Role Robots Play in Warehousing Operations

Everything You Need To Know About How Robots Are Used In Warehousing Operations

Consumer desire for fast order fulfillment amid the e-commerce boom has helped to generate a surge in warehouse automation as well as in warehouse robotics. In 2016, the warehouse robotics market was valued at $2.28 billion. By the end of 2022 it is expected to reach $6 billion and by 2027 it is anticipated to exceed $23 billion in value. The growth of warehouse robotics is underscored by its ability to boost warehouse production, which experts assert is 200% to 300% across industries.

Many of the robots that are used in storage and fulfillment warehouses are autonomous. These robots can be programmed to perform duties with minimal human interaction. They vary in capability, from process automation machines like conveyors to aerial vehicles such as drones. These robots are redefining global supply chains and warehousing logistics by helping companies to:

  • Decrease long-term costs
  • Support or extend the workforce
  • Increase warehouse production
  • Reduce error rate
  • Optimize picking, packing, sorting, and storing times

Common Types of Warehouse Robots

Today robotics are commonly used in warehousing and distribution centers. The advancements in their capabilities due to the advent of the Internet of Things and 5G has enabled companies to use robots in critical roles. As robotics companies continue to innovate advanced technologies, the use of robots as warehouse solutions will continue to proliferate across industries.

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are used by warehouse facilities for material handling needs. By connecting with the IoT, AMRs use navigation sensors and cameras to move independently. AMRs do not operate on fixed paths. Instead, they use artificial intelligence to sense and distinguish their environment before moving.

AMRs are beneficial to warehousing operations because they limit strenuous and tedious warehouse labor. They optimize warehouse operations by making sure products are picked, packed, and shipped. This improves warehouse safety and worker retention by reducing the stress on warehouse staff, allowing them to focus on more detailed warehousing process. Smart forklifts and automated sortation systems are examples of AMRs. Here is a list of applications that AMRs are used for in warehouse operations.

  • Transportation The sensors on AMRs allow them to assess and follow the most efficient route through a warehouses space to transport items. AMRs can maneuver around fixed obstacles and moving ones such as humans. AMRs are used to transport raw materials, both those that are work in progress, and finished goods.
  • Picking Due to their artificial intelligence and connection to the IoT, AMRs can formulate strategies that can reduce picking travel time by bringing products directly to warehouse associates. They also can receive items from workers that they can take to be packed and shipped.
  • SortingAMRs are useful in simplifying sortation processes. They are equipped with cross belt systems, conveyor rollers, and tilting trays that can send items to the correct place for them to be picked, packed, and shipped. AMRs can also be used for consolidation and returns sorting by bringing bins or pallets to workstations.
  • Inventory VisibilityBy integrating AMRs into warehouse management systems, warehousing businesses can automate their inventory control processes, reducing costs and time necessary to track inventory levels.

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Aerial Drones

The use of drones in warehousing operations has increased over the past several years and experts predict that their usage will continue to climb. They have become useful to warehousing operations, especially since the rise of e-commerce has increased the volume of goods that many warehouses handle. Drones can optimize warehouse inventory processes by quickly scanning a warehouses space. Due to IoT and 5G advanced technology, drones can connect to warehouse management systems to access and verify data to perform tasks from the sky, such as:

  • Inventory audits
  • Cycle counting
  • Item searches
  • Buffer stock maintenance
  • Stock taking

Drones also support warehouse operations through indoor intralogistics. Indoor intralogistics refers to the transportation of items within a warehouse or between adjacent warehouse facilities. Automated drones can carry items on a pre-fixed path or through IoT-enabled optical sensors between warehouse operations for more efficient transportation and inventory storage.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)

Automated Guided Vehicles utilize a fixed path to transport raw materials and products throughout storage and distribution facilities. They perform duties that are typically handled by conveyors, manual carts, and manual forklifts. AGVs provide a continuous movement of products, making them more efficient than human workers.

  • Automatic Guided Carts – AGCs utilize navigation systems to transport a variety of materials throughout warehousing facilities. Their navigation systems can range from magnetic tape on warehouse floors to IoT-based AI that allows them to automatically maneuver on fixed paths across warehouse space. They are often used in warehousing functions such as storing, sorting, and cross-docking.
  • Towing AGVsTowing AGVs or driverless trains, are used for moving heavy loads over long distances. These vehicles follow a fixed-path along rails attached to the warehouse floor or by IoT-sensors positioned throughout the warehouse.
  • Unit Load Handlers Unit load handlers carry small loads or single pallets or tote that contains multiple items.
  • Heavy Burden CarriersHeavy burden carriers are a type of AGV used to transport heavy duty materials. These robots are equipped with self-loading capabilities and omni-directional steering.
  • Articulated Robots – Articulated robots, often called robotic arms, are a type of pick-and-place robot. They have multiple joints that they can use to manipulate products within distribution centers and warehouses. The arms can move, turn, lift, and maneuver items and are useful in making sure that products are palletized, received, stored, picked, packed, and shipped.
  • Collaborative Robots or Cobots – Collaborative robots are frequently Cobots are designed to work alongside or directly with human workers to simplify and streamline warehouse operations. While most robots in warehousing facilities perform their duties without human collaboration, cobots work hand in hand with humans to increase the safety and health of employees as well as warehouse efficiency. 

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/AR)

Automated storage and retrieval systems help speed warehousing operations such as picking, packing, storing, and sorting. These systems are most often used in high volume warehouse environments such as e-commerce fulfillment centers.

Unit-load system – utilized for handling heavy full pallet-sized loads

Mini-load system – used for lightweight product handling and tote-stacking

Carousel-based systems – used to retrieve and store products. This system can move vertically or horizontally in a fixed area.

Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is critical to the growth of smart warehousing. AI refers to a computer’s ability to perform learning, reasoning, and problem-solving functions normally performed by a human. In the past, warehouse robots were unable to perceive their surroundings and make choices to eliminate errors. Today, with the advent of IoT-sensors and 5G, warehouse robots can perform duties efficiently and safely with or without human collaboration.

AI is typically divided into two categories:

  • Augmentation: AI that assists humans in day-to-day work tasks
  • Automation: AI that functions without human interference

How Warehouse Robots Navigate the Warehouse

Warehouse robots rely on a variety of navigation systems to transport items throughout storage and distribution facilities. Here is a look at several types.

  • Rail navigation – Robots use rail-guided warehouse navigation systems to travel along rails in pre-fixed routes attached to the warehouse floor.
  • Wire-guided navigationRobots use wire-guided navigation to travel throughout warehouse space. Wires located beneath warehouse floors guide robots with the use of inducive sensors. These sensors utilize an electromagnetic field created by a current flowing through the wire to send the robot to its destination.
  • Magnetic tape-based navigation – Magnetic tape-based navigation is placed on the warehouse floor in desired routes, creating a magnetic field that guides robots to their pre-fixed destinations.
  • Laser-based navigation – Some robot navigation systems use of laser guidance. These lasers are IoT based and enable robots to create a three-dimensional map of their environment to autonomously transport products throughout the warehouse
  • Vision-based navigation – Vision-based navigation utilizes optical sensors to analyze and interpret the visual features of the surrounding environment. This data is used for positioning and obstacle avoidance.
  • Geo-guidance

Robots that utilize geo-guidance recognize their environment using IoT-sensors. These sensors establish their position inside of the warehouse based on a map and the robot’s ability to identify objects autonomously.

Advantages of Using Robots in Warehousing Operations

There are several benefits of utilizing robots in warehousing operations. Some include:

  • Improved warehouse performanceBy using robotic technologies, warehouses can improve their productivity without affecting the quality of their warehousing operations. With the help of robots, warehouse associates can handle much larger volumes of goods during a work shift. Robots can also increase order fulfillment accuracy and accelerate repetitive processes when used in collaboration with warehouse workers.
  • Improved working conditions – Robots are used to perform dangerous, repetitive, and strenuous tasks. This advantage reduces the risk of serious accidents that can affect worker safety and health as well as improves worker morale.
  • Reduced errorsUsing robots reduces the risk of mistakes in warehouse operations.
  • Increased Consumer satisfaction – The increase in order fulfillment process speed and decrease in human errors that robots provide improves customer satisfaction, which is crucial for successful business operations. Robotics enable human workers to focus on tasks such as gift packaging that can improve the customer experience.

 

    Smart Warehousing

    Digital retail giant Amazon has over 200,000 robots helping deliver more than 350 million different items

      Using Drones for Managing Inventory Can:

      Increase the inventory accuracy

      Decrease labor costs

      Minimize dangerous tasks for warehouse associates

        Conclusion

        The use of robots in warehousing logistics and supply chain operations is not new. With the advent of the Internet of Things and 5G, advanced robotic technology is helping companies operate more efficiently. Robots are a warehousing solution that can improve order fulfillment rates and delivery speed, optimize inventory management processes, and improve customer satisfaction. Warehousing and storage facilities around the world are also utilizing robots to improve the occupational health and safety of their workers, which improves retention rates, especially critical during the labor shortage. Robots are also improving warehouse education and research by collecting data that can be used to optimize warehousing functions.  

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