The distribution industry is changing, mainly driven by the rise of e-commerce, labor hiring difficulties and technological advancements.
The increase use of autonomous robots is one of the answers of the above-mentioned challenges. According to a recent report published by Deloitte, “Autonomous robots are expected to see strong growth over the next five years.” We can easily list many advantages of using those technologies in distribution centers:
- Order Quality
- Unlimited and flexible runtime
The first autonomous robots were quite expensive, but this is changing due to various technological improvements and increased economies of scale in production. In fact, still according to Deloitte’s report, “… the question is no longer whether autonomous robots will find a way into the supply chain, but where and how soon.”
All this is great, but what kind of autonomous robots do we see in distribution centers? If we look at what is commercially available today, we could list three categories:
- Storage and retrieval
- Picking assistance
Storage and retrieval
Storage and retrieval autonomous robots perform basically the same tasks as traditional mini-loads using cranes. They pick products to store on shelves and pick products for shipping preparation. The main advantage of using autonomous robots is the flexibility they provide compared to previously used technologies (AS/RS cranes). The latest autonomous robots can basically go everywhere in the storage structure by changing aisles and levels. It is therefore possible to get the best throughput with this approach as robots are deployed where needed. Also, because of the various levels of the storage structure, less footprint is required when hundreds of thousands of products must be stored. Therefore, it is the best option for larger size distribution centers. The only major drawback when compared to cranes is the dimension and weight limitations that can be handled by those autonomous robots.
This highly automated approach is the most productive one, but can require significant infrastructure, which makes it most valuable for larger distribution centers.
One good example of this type of technology is from Symbotic. Each autonomous robot can access any case in the storage at a speed up to 25 mph. Cases, cartons, trays, with or without shrink wrapping, can be handled.
With this technology, the autonomous robots travel on the floor and bring the required shelving units to a person to prepare the order. Once the shelf arrives to the person, they pick the appropriate products and place them directly in the shipping carton(s). Some say that this approach can save up to 50% of the picking labor and dramatically increase the picking speed in a warehouse with the elimination of walking. This approach requires less infrastructure than the storage and retrieval systems and can be scaled as required by adding more autonomous robots, shelves, and floor space relatively easily. One drawback of this approach is that all storage everything cannot exceed the average person’s reach height. Therefore, the distribution center needs a lot of horizontal square footage to store thousands of products.
The best-known solution in this category is the Kiva system, now Amazon Robotics. Other solution providers are Swisslog, Grenzebach and GreyOrange.
In this approach, people walk a few designated aisles of the warehouse to pick products, but they are assisted with autonomous robots that guide them where to go and what to pick. Pickers will then place the products into the totes on the robots. The robots will then either autonomously guide themselves to the next picking location or to a shipping station for a person to complete. This option is the less intensive in infrastructure investments, but offers a lower throughput than previously-mentioned solutions. While this option still drastically reduces the foot path of each picker, it still relies on the picker’s productivity. This is one of the best options for smaller warehouses that do not have the required volume or capital to invest in other storage and retrieval solutions.
Major distribution centers are competing to completely automate the entire picking process. Most solutions still heavily rely on a person to take the product from the totes or the shelves as well as package the orders. Many organizations, like Amazon and DHL, organize picking challenges to advance the development of the vision-guided robotic solutions while others invest to develop their own technologies. As a result, we expect the picking process to be entirely automated within the next few years.
Deloitte: Using autonomous robots to drive supply chain innovation, 2017, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/manufacturing/us-manufacturing-autonomous-robots-supply-chain-innovation.pdf