With the exponential growth of e-commerce, both businesses and consumers now expect a swift and reliable delivery service to customers, at low or no cost, meaning the race is on for cheaper, faster, better. Could logistics robots be the answer?
In a Deloitte survey, customer demands for faster response times and rising customer service expectations were two of the top issues that supply chain leaders found very or extremely challenging. This acute pressure for those operating in the uber-competitive logistics world is only growing, placing material handling departments under more strain than ever before.
Optimisation of inventory and streamlining of goods handling has become imperative in an age that now opts to receive personal deliveries in minutes and hours rather than in days or weeks. Consequently, the time to pick, pack and ship a customer’s order is now also measured in mere minutes, leaving little margin for human error. All of this information is troubling, when, in the UK, Brexit is causing considerable uncertainty over labour availability and in the US, 600,000 warehouse positions nationally go unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers. This labour shortage – combined with an annual workforce turnover in the warehousing and distribution industry of 25% – results in a substantial gap between the required workforce and the available labour pool. This problem is only exacerbated by our ageing population and rising consumer expectations. Unsurprisingly, all of these factors make the logistics sector fertile ground for sowing and reaping the benefits of automation.
Robots have previously been consigned to tasks that are downright dangerous, dull, or dirty. Because they never get bored or tired, they are also especially good at dealing with monotonous or strenuous tasks, which makes them the perfect companion for warehouses that require repetitive or strenuous labour. As robots are now tailor-made to handle tasks such as palletization, depalletization, consolidation and load handling, repetitive stress injuries could become a thing of the past. For many logistics teams, deploying robots is also the only viable alternative to help address labour shortages. Robots are also useful for improving ergonomics and decreasing safety incidents in the workplace, as well as drastically reducing picking times (and in many cases doubling warehouse efficiency), improving storage capacity, lowering energy costs, improving security, and producing perfect inventory accuracy and zero-defect logistics processes. In the case of the grocery handling warehouse robots Tharsus designed and now manufacture for Ocado, customer picking times for orders of around 50 items were reduced from hours to a few minutes.
Although there are some emerging approaches that fall outside of these boundaries, there are, broadly speaking, three categories of robots that are expected to dominate the intralogistics space: follow-me robots, autonomous robots and coordinated fleets. All of these robots fall on a variegated spectrum of technological complexity; some are laden with sensors, complete with manipulator arms and grippers, some operate as part of a larger ecosystem – working autonomously in swarms or in a fleet picking items on grid-like structures, some guide humans and others follow our lead. What is clear, is that the array of robots and technologies designed for intralogistics is rapidly multiplying, and they are all vying for a space in your warehouse. But how do they differ?
Follow-me robots require the lowest amount of technology out of the three groups. As their name would suggest, their role is to work side-by-side with a human warehouse worker to pick orders by following the human around the warehouse. They have no intelligence beyond following a person and they simply enable the worker to pick larger items and multiple orders on one trip without needing to push a heavy trolley. They provide modest productivity gains, but, because they need fewer components (that tend to be less complex), they cost less and are far easier to integrate into existing warehouse systems and processes.
Autonomous bots tend to sit at an intermediate level, more advanced and expensive, slightly more difficult to integrate but with the reward of more keenly felt productivity gains. These machines are able to navigate autonomously around a warehouse and can be dispatched to a bin location to await an order pick (mostly by a human) before automatically taking the order to be packed and dispatched without human supervision. They can be broken down into two subsidiaries: man-to-goods machines (such as those designed by start-ups such as Locus, Otto and Fetch), and goods-to-man machines – as demonstrated by companies such as Swisslog.
Coordinated robot fleet
Lastly, and arguably the most technologically advanced, and the most expensive and difficult to install and integrate, but with the most dramatic productivity gains, is the coordinated fleet of bots. Examples include the Kiva robot, as monopolised and rebranded by Amazon Robotics in 2012, who no longer sell the robots to industry but instead utilise 45,000 of them for Amazon’s internal operations. Another is the grocery handling warehouse distribution system developed by the world’s largest online-only supermarket – Ocado – for whom Tharsus designed and manufacture the robot. These systems use a fleet of many robots collaborating to provide the items for a single customer order. Because they bring the items to the picker, they can use floor-space much more efficiently than traditional aisle and shelving layout. A major benefit of this approach is that it is fully flexible with robots performing tasks in parallel. This widens the potential to continuously optimise the system performance by analysing the mountain of critical operational data curated from each of the interconnected devices. It is this element of interconnectivity that will allow us to create “smart factories” and catapult us to Industry 4.0.
Clearly then, today’s robots are not the robots of old; that is to say, they are no longer relatively blind, static, and unintelligent. They are no longer limited to repetitive, high-accuracy movements repeated thousands of times per day. Now, armed with super sensitive pressure sensors, Lidar technology for navigation and collision avoidance, high-resolution cameras that form sophisticated vision systems, and brains that make them capable of self-learning and self-correcting, they are moving beyond their historic confines of blue-collar drudgery.
For smaller organisations without the capital of larger conglomerates, it does not have to come down to an all or nothing approach, either. If automating an entire warehouse is not feasible, then one option could be segmenting your warehouse into various categories and automating where it is most logical. Another option could be considering the use of a robotic cart, as demonstrated by DHL. Options like this can be trialled one machine at a time with minimal IT integration or process changes but are very simple to roll out, requiring zero mapping or integration with WMS, and are great for large, diverse, legacy warehouse estate. This type of robot is also collaborative, which doesn’t mean replacing staff but simply enabling them to work smarter.
It seems then, that if robots now have improved navigational safety and can intelligently sense their environment, combined with higher performance levels, robots offer a viable alternative to human manual handling. With a range of options and applications on offer and more emerging every day, there is no longer a need to settle for a “one size fits all” approach. What’s more, unlike human workers, robots provide unparalleled traceability, predictability and control. That’s not to say robots will or should replace existing warehouse staff. What it does mean, is that the logistics world and the wider UK economy is ready for significant gains in productivity, and robots could work in collaboration with us to help us achieve them. As such, robots are now poised as the only solution to cheaper, faster, better in the world of warehousing.
If you’d like to talk to us about how robots can transform your business, contact the author of this article, our CCO Tim at Tim.Ensor@tharsus.co.uk