In the previous installments of this short series, we discussed how robotic systems are ideally suited to repetitive duties in the warehouse environment. Without a doubt, recent advances in automation technologies have enabled robots to improve work productivity and quality, which consequently provides opportunities for warehouse staff to focus on more strategic duties.
In this final part, we now examine the cases where robots are used to optimise the tasks of palletizing and depalletizing, order packing, packaging, and stock control.
1. Palletizing and depalletizing
- Palletizing Robots
reduce manual labour efforts using articulated arms and advanced end-effectors to pick-and-place items on pallets in any desired configuration and orientation. These robots are conveniently adaptable to various pallet and product designs (thus avoiding re-tooling costs) and, since they can simultaneously handle disparate items, are well suited for mixed-product palletizing.
Naturally, advances in AI and machine learning technologies mean that these robots can continuously learn and enhance their operating performance, accuracy, and efficiency.
- Depalletizing Robots
also improve productivity and reduce labour costs by enabling rapid and precise pallet unloading. Capable of handling a range of pallet unloading applications (mixed products, single-case, and full-layer), these robots are particularly suited to a variety of businesses, in particular commercial food services and eCommerce.
2. Order Packing
Historically, automation used to pack finished goods was classified as hard1 and performed only limited tasks. Today, you will find many robotic systems for eCommerce pack-out that have both the capability and intelligence to handle smaller batch sizes and many SKU varieties.
Many companies, such as MSC Industrial (a leading MRO distributor) and DCL Logistics (a 3PL fulfilment centre), leverage robotic systems to pack goods directly into shippable cartons.
Interestingly, the online pharmaceutical company, apo.com Group, has integrated packing robotics with their AutoStore® solution2 to help pack goods directly into finished goods boxes. Their fully automated order fulfilment process in the Netherlands operates 24 hours a day as their fleet of robots (RightHand Robotics®) pick items from totes and pack them into cartons and sealing machines.
To ensure continuity of smooth performance, pack-out robots must work in harmony with the conveyance systems that transfer and feed the goods in the fulfilment process, and ultimately, this requires the warehouse management system to tightly control the flow of orders and materials.
Lastly, in order to accurately size the carton required for any order, the expected order profile and volume must be taken into account. One effective solution is to install an automatic case erector upstream, and quite often we find that these systems are very efficient for handling a mix of items to be packed in one carton (for instance, online pharmaceutical products, etc.).
3. Robotic Packaging
is not an entirely new concept since, in many manufacturing industries, they are used for packaging goods issued from production lines. However, in eCommerce fulfilment today (where warehouse managers are expected to handle thousands of SKUs), we see that robots are increasingly engaged in packaging operations.
Typically, finished goods vary in size from small plastic bags to cartons, and these are generally transferred to an end-of-line packaging process. Here, robots can be used to perform a variety of packaging operations, including carton assembly, void measurement, filler insertion, carton sealing, and finally, placing finished packages on pallets in preparation for dispatch.
When it comes to handling larger payloads, such as cartons and pallets, robots also enable heaving and lifting duties otherwise performed by warehouse staff. The advantage of long-reach is a welcome feature that can ultimately lead to a reduction in operator injury risks.
Nowadays, robotic packaging systems have the image processing sophistication for on-the-fly visual inspection, and this assists the fulfilment centre to consistently fill each carton and keep packages intact. Examples of common features include:
- X-ray and metal inspection systems to detect foreign particulates
- Vision inspection systems to guarantee content integrity, and
- Check-weighers to ensure products are not under or overfilled
Lastly, to ensure accurate inventory data and efficient stock control, reliable measurements of cargo dimensions and weights are essential. Many automated tools3 are available to allow warehouses to accurately perform in-line measurements and significantly reduce the risk of operator error.
4. Stock Control
Many fulfilment centres have vast building footprints and store enormous quantities of goods in vertical storage racks. This configuration is highly conducive to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. The benefits of exploiting drones in the warehouse environment4 are attractive; for instance, in addition to enhancing personnel safety, drones can assist in automating routine tasks such as monitoring stock levels and inventory counting. Furthermore, for inventory control, drones have the ability to sense when stocking levels approach a minimum value, prompting AGVs to automatically replenish the appropriate bins.
Thanks to their advanced navigation abilities and obstacle avoidance sensors, warehouse drones can easily scan items that are stored in hard-to-reach locations and in places that are not in the warehouse operator’s line-of-sight. This avoids the need for warehouse personnel to climb racks and enter confined spaces to inspect or count products. Consequently, this also reduces traffic density within the aisles and improves the flow of equipment and personnel.
The use case for drones in the global home furnishing company, IKEA, is interesting. Here, a typical store has around seven thousand shelf locations, with DCs having ten times more. Historically, the stock counting process was highly manual, and the resulting error rate was high (this required up to ten employees to search for lost pallets in a DC). For each shelf location, staff were required to lift a pallet down to the ground floor, count and verify the contents, then return it to its location. Remember: for every store, this operation is repeated seven thousand times, and for a DC, seventy thousand times (they have around 460 stores worldwide).
Motivated by the scale of this task, the viability of drone-based technology was explored, and by early 2022, five warehouses and one DC had deployed drones to verify stock levels. Nowadays, each of the five stores uses eight fully autonomous Verity® drones to scan all locations in a single day. These generally fly after-hours, checking only active locations, and once any data discrepancies are corrected, this provides an accuracy rate approaching 100%.
IKEA also uses the semi-autonomous EYESEE® drone, which requires markers to be strategically placed along the warehouse that create virtual boundaries for the drone. As this type of device is designed to count a single aisle at a time, it is nevertheless suitable for use in the central warehouse (where inventory needs to be checked less frequently).
Despite the aforementioned benefits, drone-based solutions for warehouse applications currently remain in the validation phase; for instance, they still have difficulty scanning small-scale objects, and WMS integration is not yet fully resolved.
For the most part, our customer engagements provide evidence that warehouse companies continue to seek ways and means to reduce operational costs across their supply chains and organisations. Of course, when businesses are faced with service expectations that are immediate (particularly in eCommerce), it is clear that manual labour frameworks alone simply cannot be a solution in the long run; this provides a stimulus for supply chain practitioners to find alternative ways to increase efficiency and service performance.
In warehouse operations, robotic adoption continues to expand, and this clearly offers multiple benefits to commercial requirements, including streamlined processes that improve operational output and error rates. Let us not forget – many companies continue to experience ongoing challenges in finding, hiring, and retaining skilled labour for warehouse operations, and as warehouses adapt to serve more on-demand solutions, the physical risks to staff grow accordingly. It is therefore advantageous for warehouses to concentrate efforts, where possible, on robotic solutions.
We hope that you found this short article on warehouse robotics to be informative, and if you have any questions or commentary on this subject, we’d love to hear from you.
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