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Warehousing Becomes More Efficient with Collaborative Robots

A quick guide to the essentials you need to know about collaborative robots and how they are being used to improve warehousing operations 

For warehouse operators that want their workforce to work smarter, not harder, robotics has become increasingly popular. Did you know that there is a type of robotics that operates in tandem with human workers, rather than replacing human labor? Think about it. Robotics and human workers side-by-side tackling warehousing processes faster and more efficiently. Warehouses can have the “best of both worlds,” as collaborative robots (cobots) perform tasks that involve heavy lifting and repetitive motion, human workers can perform decision making tasks.

Warehousing operations around the globe are swiftly changing because of E-commerce. Factors such as disrupted supply chains, overcrowded ports and The Great Resignation have pushed warehouses and fulfillment centers to focus on solutions to their need for more seamless order fulfillment and logistics processes. To adjust to the increased demand, businesses are turning to automated systems. One of the ways that logistics and supply chain companies are improving their warehouse operations is by utilizing collaborative robots. 

In traditional warehousing operations, human workers perform repetitive and menial tasks such as picking and packing. In large warehouses, this not only impacts workforce efficiency and productivity but also the health and safety of workers. Performing repetitive tasks for long periods of time can lead to overexertion and injury. These injuries can lead to missed days of work for employees and businesses paying out workers compensation benefits.

Many warehouse associates spend more time traveling throughout the warehouse than performing essential work.  Collaborative robots, often referred to as cobots, are being used as one warehousing solution to answer this dilemma, taking repetitive, laborious, and dangerous tasks out of the hands of humans. This has had a profound effect on the efficiency of warehousing processes across supply chains. Using the Internet of Things and 5G, cobots can be seamlessly integrated into warehouse management systems. Equipped with artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, cobots are capable of learning how to perform essential warehousing functions directly from human workers.

As warehouses struggle to meet consumer demands amid the e-commerce boom, collaborative robots have become one of the latest technologies to address high-volume order fulfillment environments. From goods transportation to making sure that items are picked, packed, and shipped, cobots are helping to increase the efficiency of supply chains around the globe by safely working with humans.

What Are Collaborative Robots?

The first collaborative robot was invented in 1996 by J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin. It was described as a device that enabled direct physical interaction between a human worker and a computer. Over time, the popularity of cobots has increased and they now play a role in warehousing logistics across many types of supply chains.

Collaborative robots are machines that reduce or eliminate the need for human workers to perform repetitive, complex, or hazardous tasks. They work alongside warehouse workers to help ensure the protection of the worker and the inventory. Instead of replacing humans  as industrial robots do, cobots are employed in warehouses and distribution centers to supplement employees’ duties to optimize their throughput efficiency. Collaborative robots perform cumbersome and repetitive actions such as picking, packing, and moving heavy items. This allows humans to focus on tasks that add value to warehouse and supply chain operations.

How Cobots Are Helping Warehouses and Employees

The global robotics market is predicted to reach $13 billion by 2025. Cobots currently make up around 3% of those sales, however that number is expected to grow to 34% by 2025. Their programmability enables cobots to assist with shifting priorities that occur during order fulfillment by increasing the number of tasks that they can handle. In addition, many cobots are equipped with IoT-sensors that can be used to monitor the health of warehouse workers. By monitoring things such as workers’ body temperature and blood pressure, cobots help to increase the occupational safety and health of employees inside of warehouses.

A study by Forrester suggests that by 2025, automation will eliminate 16% of current jobs and create only 9% of new jobs in the warehousing industry. Experts believe that this will happen because of artificial intelligence and machine learning. These capabilities will replace mechanical work and introduce newer jobs and roles for human workers that add value to supply chains.

Cobots are not designed to reduce jobs. With the help of cobots, warehouses can circumvent eliminating jobs and focus on implementing processes that complement employees. As logistics and supply chains digitalize, companies are using cobots to improve their warehouse operations without affecting the human workforce. Some ways that cobots are doing so are:

  • Increasing warehouse efficiency
  • Reducing product errors
  • Lowering costs
  • Improving workplace safety

There are several companies that are utilizing cobots to help with their order fulfillment processes. Amazon uses cobots in its warehousing operations to bring shelves of products to warehouse associates, who then process them for shipment. The company states that this has reduced order fulfillment times from 1 hour to 15 minutes.

Amazon has also developed vests that employees wear. These vests are equipped with IoT-sensors that communicate the employee’s position in the warehouse with other robots. By drawing an access path around the vest wearer, cobots can automatically update their routes to avoid humans. This enables workers to safely maneuver around the facility.

Nike also utilizes cobots in their warehouse facilities. The company has installed nearly 1,000 cobots to help with sorting, picking, and packing processes. These machines have helped Nike to triple its e-commerce order capacity. Cobots are also being used to improve workflow efficiency at Coty Cosmetics warehouses. Cobots are used in their cosmetics supply chain to pick and place powder pans from one station to another.

Advantages of Cobots in Warehousing Operations

Increased Productivity

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average U.S. warehouse wastes 6.9 weeks a year on unnecessary walking or other motion. This costs the industry $4.3 billion, or 265 million hours of labor annually. Excess movement costs warehouses money and slows the productivity of warehouse workers.

Collaborative robots can improve worker productivity by helping to speed up their processes. AI and machine learning capabilities optimize picking routes in real-time with the help of IoT-sensors and 5G to reduce unnecessary walking. By guiding warehouse workers through their activities, cobots can make order fulfillment more efficient. In addition, cobots remove the need for workers to make long walks between work areas, reducing worker fatigue. By easing human workers of the stresses of repetitive labor and optimizing work habits, cobots improve employee satisfaction and increase productivity.

Reduced Risk of Human Error

Human error has always been costly for warehouses, however risks from human error have skyrocketed since the e-commerce boom. Not only do errors affect the customer, but also impact companies as customers’ experience may be diminished. Errors like sending customers wrong orders can harm customer-business relationships, increase return rates, and refund requests. This can lead customers to purchase from competitors, which effects the business’s overall profitability. By leveraging AI and machine learning, collaborative robots can help make decisions quickly and accurately by guiding workers through their tasks. This minimizes the likelihood that human errors will occur.

Improving Workflow Efficiency

Cobots were developed to safely help humans in their warehousing duties. They can be utilized for difficult and repetitive tasks, giving human workers the ability to focus on complex processes that may involve critical thinking. Cobots can perform warehousing operations such as packaging while workers perform quality control on items before and after packaging.

Lower Operating Costs

One of the greatest advantages of collaborative robots is their ability to lower costs associated with warehousing operations. Working alongside humans, cobots improve worker efficiency. This reduces labor gaps by facilitating more productivity. Instead of hiring more workers, warehouses can utilize cobots to help with increases in order fulfillment, especially during peak purchasing seasons.

Enhanced Warehouse Safety

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly six recordable injuries for every 100 full-time warehouse workers. Four out of the six normally require days off from work or job restrictions. This is costly to businesses due to workers compensation as well as reduced productivity. Cobots reduce risk of injuries to workers be assisting them in duties that are too strenuous or dangerous.

4 Major Types of Collaborative Robots

Safety Monitored Stop

This type of collaborative robot utilizes IoT-sensors that halt the robot’s operation whenever a human enters the work environment.

Speed and Separation

These types of cobots are equipped with advanced vision systems that slow their operations or alert them to move to other work areas when human workers are present.

Power and Force Limiting

Power and Force Limiting cobots are equipped with IoT-sensors that detect when the cobot touches a human. Cobots use force limitation technology to reduce the risk of injury by immediately stopping operation.

Hand Guiding

These collaborative robots are equipped with hand-held devices that enable the warehouse associate to directly control the robot’s movement. Hand-guided devices help to reduce repetitive-stress injuries.

Cobots vs. Industrial Robots

Both cobots and industrial robots ensure that warehousing operations are performed effectively. The difference between cobots and industrial robots is that cobots are designed to assist warehouse associates and improve their efficiency, while industrial robots are made to replace humans.

Industrial robots follow fixed routes and are normally utilized for one task. They are best used for streamlining intensive tasks that require constant movement, such as storing or removing palletized products. Cobots on the other hand are flexible warehousing solutions that can be used for a variety of warehouse logistics processes. An example of cobots in action is the use of robotic arms in e-commerce fulfillment warehouses. Robotic arms are typically installed to perform picking tasks, which increases order fulfillment accuracy and throughput.

Cobots

  • Carry out multiple tasks
  • Improve their skills through machine learning
  • Are lightweight
  • Interact with humans

Industrial Robots

  • Execute a single task with maximum precision
  • Do not respond to unforeseen events (they are pre-programmed)
  • Are heavy and have limited movement
  • Do not collaborate with operators

Tools For Collaborative Robots in The Warehouse

Cobots are becoming more popular due to their flexibility, which enables them to be configured with a variety of tools. Many of the tools for collaborative robots that are being developed utilize AI and machine learning. This allows cobots to learn warehouse processes to improve productivity and employee satisfaction.  Some types of tools for collaborative robots are:

Grippers

Gripper tools enable cobots to pick and place items in their necessary places. There are several types of grippers that are each utilized for different tasks. Types of grippers include:

·       Finger grippers

·       Vacuum grippers

·       Magnetic grippers

End of Arm Tooling (EOAT)

End of Arm Tooling consists of any tool that can be mounted onto a cobot to improve production capacity. These include:

·       Glue machines

·       Screw machines

·       Tool changers

·       Sensors

Tool Changers

Tool changers enable cobots to autonomously change their tools, giving them the ability to seamlessly perform multiple operations.

Vision Systems

Vision systems provide cobots with the visibility to locate objects, scan barcodes, and recognize patterns. IoT-sensors create 2D and 3D images that the collaborative robot can use during warehousing processes.

Conclusion

Cobots are helping to further the advent of smart warehousing by working collaboratively with humans in storage facilities and fulfillment warehouses. They perform various tasks that help to improve the occupational safety and health of human workers, as well as increase the productivity and efficiency of warehousing operations.

By helping to move products throughout a warehouses space, store inventory, and assist with managing inventory levels, cobots can improve all areas of warehousing functions that they are implemented in. In addition, they also provide long-term value to companies by performing tasks that can be automated. Artificial intelligence and machine learning allows cobots to free humans from mundane tasks, so they can perform more value-added duties such as data analytics that can add to warehousing education and research.

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    Industry Specific WMS

    Resources

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    Warehouse Automation

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    How cobots are changing the nature of fulfillment | Supply Chain Dive                                                                                                    

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