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January 12, 2024
January 12, 2024

Warehouse Robotics: A Complete Overview

Explore the benefits of warehouse robotics and how modern storage solutions are redefining logistics, efficiency, and inventory management.

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Warehouse robotics sorting and retrieving inventory Bins in a compact Cube Storage system.

The role of robotics in warehouse operations

In the expansive field of warehouse logistics, the emergence of warehouse robotics marks a significant stride towards operational excellence and innovation. As businesses seek to streamline processes and meet the accelerating pace of demand, robotics represent a significant leap towards greater efficiency, offering diverse solutions that revolutionize traditional practices.

As we embark on this exploration of warehouse robotics, we'll uncover various robotic systems and the roles they can play in warehouse operations. From the storage and retrieval by automated robotic systems to swift order picking by robotic arms, each component plays a vital role in enhancing the supply chain.

This journey is not just about understanding the mechanics of robotics but appreciating the broader impact on efficiency, accuracy, and adaptability in warehousing. Whether you're a logistics professional looking to refine operations or simply curious about the future of the warehousing industry, this blog on warehouse robotics is set to provide a comprehensive view of how technology is transforming storage and distribution.

A short history of warehouse robotics

The history of warehouse robotics has a longer history than one might think, and is tied to the broader development of industrial robots. It began, surprisingly, at a cocktail party in 1956, where Joseph Engelberger, the “father of robotics”, met the inventor George Devol Jr. and chatted with him about his work on automation. Inspired by Devol’s enthusiasm and ideas, Engelberger helped to fund the work that led to the world’s first industrial robot, Unimate #001, installed as a prototype on a General Motors production line in 1959. By 1961, the Unimate 1900 series became the first mass produced robotic arm for factory automation and was patented the same year.  

These early robots were limited in scope, but the impact was immediate and heralded a new era in the application of automated systems. Since then, the evolution of industrial and warehouse robotics has grown apace, with the convergence of more and more powerful processors, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and concepts such as the Internet of Things unlocking their full potential.

AutoStore is an example of a modern robotic warehouse systems for storing and retrieving goods in a warehouse, also referred to as an Automated Storage and Retrieval System (AS/RS).

How do modern warehouse robots work?

Modern warehouse robots operate using a combination of sophisticated hardware and advanced software that enables them to perform a variety of tasks, from basic material handling to complex order processing. Here's a breakdown of how they typically function:

  1. Navigation: Many robots use sensors and cameras to navigate the warehouse space. Some follow pre-determined paths marked by lines (AGVs - Automated Guided Vehicles), tracks (AutoStore cube storage robots) or wires while others (like AMRs - Autonomous Mobile Robots) use SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) technology to move freely and adapt to changes in their environment.
  2. Sensing and Interaction: Equipped with various sensors, these robots can detect and maneuver around obstacles, identify goods, and safely operate alongside human workers. They often use barcode scanners or RFID readers to identify items during picking and placing tasks.
  3. Data Processing: Modern robots are connected to a central software which sends them instructions and receives updates on their activities. The sophisticated software gives orders continuously, optimizing their actions for efficiency. This software also integrates with a warehouse management system (WMS).
  4. Machine Learning and AI: Advanced robotics systems utilize machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence to improve over time. They can analyze patterns, predict needs, and even plan the best routes and methods for picking and sorting, becoming more efficient as they process more data.
  5. Collaboration: Robots can work in tandem with other robots and human workers to streamline warehouse operations. Collaborative robots, or cobots, are specifically designed to work alongside humans, taking over repetitive or strenuous tasks while humans handle more complex decision-making.
  6. Task Execution: Warehouse robots perform a range of tasks, such as picking items from a storage location, transporting goods across the warehouse, sorting items into different categories for shipping, and even packing orders. Some robots are specialized, designed for specific tasks like lifting heavy items, while others are more versatile.
  7. Charging and Maintenance: To maintain continuous operations, robots either return to charging stations autonomously when their batteries run low or are powered by replaceable battery packs. Predictive maintenance is often performed through the analysis of operational data to prevent breakdowns.

Modern warehouse robots are integral components of an interconnected system where each robot's activities are synchronized with the overall workflow of the warehouse, ensuring a seamless operation from inventory management to order fulfillment.

In the vast majority of cases, implementing warehouse robotics has a profoundly positive effect. A recent market survey conducted at IDC found that the majority of commercial service robotic projects delivered double-digit improvements in productivity, efficiency and capacity. However, research shows that only 20% of the world's warehouses are automated, showing the tremendous competitive advantage automation currently holds.

Let's delve further into the world of warehouse robotics, exploring the various roles warehouse robotics can take, in addition to the different capabilities and functionalities of various systems.

Robotic roles in the warehouse

Robotics plays a crucial role in contemporary warehouse automation, effectively tackling numerous industry challenges such as complex supply chain management, the need for flexible order fulfillment, escalating employment costs, and dwindling labor availability in developed economies. By enhancing automation, warehouses can significantly decrease errors, thereby boosting customer satisfaction and cultivating a reputation for efficiency and modernity. But how exactly do robotics contribute in these areas?

Storing and retrieving goods

In the realm of warehouse operations, the methods of storing and retrieving goods significantly influence overall efficiency and productivity. Traditionally, this has been a manual process, involving workers physically moving items to and from storage locations. This method, while straightforward, presents several challenges in terms of speed, accuracy, and labor intensity. In contrast, contemporary warehouses are increasingly utilizing robotics to handle these tasks. The robotic systems for storing and retrieving goods in a warehouse is referred to as Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS). Let's delve into various types of robotic systems for storing and retrieving goods below.

AS/RS robotic systems: AutoStore Cube Storage Robots

The AutoStore system stands out in the field of automated storage and retrieval robotics, featuring a fleet of Cube Storage Robots adeptly maneuvering across an extremely dense storage Grid. This Grid is packed with inventory Bins arranged in stacks, with Robots gliding on the top. Capable of speeds up to 3.1 m/s, these Robots excel not just in individual agility but in their collective operation. The essence of their high performance lies in the synchronized choreography of multiple Robots executing tasks in parallel. Thanks to advanced software capabilities, AutoStore harnesses this swarm of Robots, achieving optimized throughput.

 An illustration of an AutoStore cube storage system, showcasing the highly efficient and compact grid layout with robotic units operating on top.
An illustration of the Cube Storage System with warehouse Robots working on top of the storage Grid.

Equipped with sophisticated lifting mechanisms, the Robots skillfully pick up, carry, and place inventory Bins as directed by the control software, referred to as Controller. Upon request for a specific item, the Robot locates the corresponding inventory Bin, extract it from its stack, and transports it to a workstation (Port) where a warehouse worker can pick or replenish items.

Warehouse workers picking items from inventory Bins delivered to a workstation by warehouse robots.
Warehouse workers picking items from inventory Bins delivered to a workstation by warehouse robots.

Robots efficiently retrieve Bins buried under other Bins, ensuring that even the lowest Bins are quickly within reach, (although statistically, the lowest Bins represent less than 5% of the requests going through the system).

After retrieval or replenishment, the Robot to returns the Bin to its strategically designated spot within the Grid, utilizing advanced algorithms to enhance efficiency continually. Even without these algorithms, over time, the most frequently used Bins naturally ascend to the top, resulting in approximately 40% of Bins being immediately accessible from the top without the need for digging.

These Robots are highly energy-efficient where 10 Robots use as little energy as a vacuum cleaner. Moreover, since the storage Grid is so dense, the Robots don't have to travel the same distances as many other warehouse robotic systems require.

Working exclusively on the Grid, these warehouse robots are separated from human operators, improving safety and avoiding the additional challenge of navigating a changing external environment which can be seen with AGVs and AMRs. Another benefit is that the AutoStore robotic fleet is always very flexible. Should a Robot go down, or need service, it can easily be extracted from the system without influencing the other operations. If the business is growing and there is a need for more Robots, they can simply be added to the Grid and will be integrated with the fleet in no time. This is part of the reason why AutoStore systems have a global system uptime of 99,7%.

Watch Video: How the Cube Storage System works


AS/RS robotic systems: Automated Guided Vehicles (Mobile Robots)

Two different types of robotic warehouse systems are driverless automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and their smaller cousins, automated guided carts (AGCs). These move stock, often full isles at a time, from point to point via a magnetic strip or by employing a preloaded map in combination with a sensor suite. They provide a constant flow of information through inventory management software like WMS, whilst helping to improve efficiency by tackling heavy or hazardous loads and reducing the physical toil on bodies. To operate efficiently, these robots require a suitable environment. Like automatic home vacuum cleaners, they can encounter difficulties with transitioning between different surfaces, uneven flooring and other obstacles. When implementing mobile robots such as AGVs and AMRs, it is also important to educate all warehouse workers on safety measures. Since these robots are operating in the same space as humans, having AGVs bumping into forklifts is not unheard of. These robots also have significantly higher space requirements than e.g. cube storage robots. They are, however, more effective at improving warehouse productivity compared to manual operations, and can replace conveyors where a warehouse requires a more flexible option than a static conveyor system.

 A modern automated warehouse with AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) transporting boxes, showcasing the integration of robotics in logistics and inventory management.

AS/RS robotic systems: Autonomous Mobile Robots (Mobile Robots)

A similar system is the Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR), which uses sensors, maps and software to navigate their surroundings without requiring a preplanned or set route. These robots can manage stock based on the tasks they are assigned, developing their own routes across the warehouse floor as needed. AMRs can usually avoid obstacles that would halt an AGV or AGC using a range of sensors including RFIDs and scanners. These robots can still have problems navigating an unpredictable external environment, and similar to AGVs, they demand extra safety precautions and warehouse staff training to avoid collision between humans and robots. AMR robots can also help to reduce redundant or repetitive tasks and can navigate and access a wide variety of SKU racks. On the other hand, they require regular maintenance checks in order to perform with optimal efficiency, and suffer from space limitations caused by shelving or height restrictions in comparison to cubic storage solutions. For example, they often require as much as 75% more space compared to a cube storage system. These robots can however be useful for other roles within the warehouse, such as for example automatic sortation with batch picking.

AS/RS robotic systems: Aerial Autonomous Drones

Delivery drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that move lightweight items both within a warehouse environment and further afield. UAV models vary between 4-8 propellers and offer the potential for both autonomous operation and with oversight from operators. Current research indicates that they will be of greatest benefit within a set space such as a warehouse or for “last mile delivery” taking on the final stage of transportation to a client or customer. In the case of warehouses, such drones can help optimize inventory processes by quickly accessing and scanning areas while moving freely, updating the WMS system on the fly. They do not need pre-set routes or laser guidance, and instead rely on optical systems in conjunction with machine learning to navigate the three dimensions.

Although they offer the promise of considerable space saving, they remain just that, a promise. There are no commercial UAV storage systems equivalent to existing warehouse robotic systems and the UAV systems in use today are worker operated. With the increased energy requirement of flight, more complex sensor suites, and limited carrying capacity, they will still suffer disadvantages compared to more capable, versatile and simpler systems such as the R5 and B1 robotic systems.

Picking

Goods-to-person robots supporting human picking

Picking is a fundamental warehouse operation, crucial for order fulfillment and inventory replenishment. Traditionally a labor-intensive task, it involves transporting items from storage areas to bins or packing stations. However, the introduction of robotic Goods-to-Person (G2P) systems and piece picking robots has revolutionized this process, significantly improving efficiency and speed.

Credit: Element Logic

AutoStore's cube storage Robots are an example of robotic G2P systems. They speed up the picking process enormously by autonomously delivering Bins containing items directly to workers at picking stations. This approach drastically reduces the time workers spend traversing the warehouse, allowing them to remain stationary and focus on sorting and packing the delivered items. By bringing Bins to workers, AutoStore Robots streamline operations, reduce errors, and increase overall productivity.

Pick and place robots: fully automating picking tasks

Pick and place robotics, also known as piece picking robots, integrated with an AutoStore G2P system. Where a human operator would normally pick the items presented, in this case a piece picking robot is taking over the picking process.

Alongside these advancements, piece picking robots, also referred to as pick and place robots, have been developed to further automate the picking process. Unlike the AutoStore Robots that are part of the G2P system, piece picking robots are specialized arms or machines designed to pick individual items from the Bins brought by the G2P systems. Piece picking robots are equipped with advanced technologies including sensors, vision systems, and artificial intelligence to identify, grasp, and accurately place items into order boxes or onto conveyors.

By incorporating piece picking robots into operations, warehouses can automate not only the transportation of goods to the picking station but also the picking of individual items from the Bins. This dual approach of using G2P systems for Bin delivery and piece picking robots for item retrieval further accelerates the picking process, reduces labor requirements, and minimizes errors, leading to more efficient, continuous operation and enhanced throughput.

Sorting

Automated sortation is a technology used in warehouse operations to identify, sort, and route items to their designated locations quickly and accurately, typically through a combination of conveyors, barcode scanners, and diverter mechanisms. For example, mobile robots or conveyor systems can automatically transport and sort fulfilled orders to different containers based on postal code. By implementing automated sortation systems, companies can significantly enhance the efficiency and accuracy of their distribution processes, leading to faster order fulfillment, reduced labor costs, and increased customer satisfaction due to quicker and more reliable delivery services. This technology is integral in modern logistics to handle the high volume and rapid pace of goods moving through warehouses and distribution centers.

Packaging

Warehouse robotics can also automate the packing process through the use of automated cartonization software and bagging robots, which are designed to make the task more efficient and less resource-intensive.

Here's how it works:

  1. Automated Cartonization Software: This software determines the most efficient box size for a given set of items, minimizing waste and reducing material costs. It takes into account the dimensions and quantities of items to be shipped, then selects or constructs a box that exactly fits the items, ensuring no space is wasted.
  2. Bagging Robots: These robots automate the bagging process, which is particularly useful for smaller, less fragile items. They quickly insert items into bags, seal them, and prepare them for shipping, much faster than could be done manually.

Both systems utilize advanced sensors to identify the size, weight, and other characteristics of the items being packed. By doing so, they ensure that each item is packed in the most space and material-efficient manner, tailored to the item's specific needs. This not only speeds up the packing process but also makes it more cost-effective and reduces the environmental impact by minimizing waste.

Transportation and Replenishment

AGC robots are ideally suited to transport and replenish stock, bringing round the clock activity and accurate inventory management in one seamless whole. Such automated warehouse systems monitor the stock levels and send alerts when these fall below a threshold, effectively supporting just-in-time ordering systems.

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The impact of robotic warehouse systems on staff

Warehouses are a challenging environment for our bodies. Not only do they involve working at height and heavy loads, two of the most common causes of industrial injuries, but they also employ forklifts which, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), have an 11% accident rate. Implementing automation technology can reduce strain on warehouse workers, especially goods-to-person systems that bring goods to people. In such systems, people only need to be stationed at a workstation to for order fulfillment and stock replenishment. The most advanced workstations are also developed with the human operator in mind. For example, FusionPort by AutoStore provides an ergonomically advanced, high-speed workstation, eliminating the need for excessive movement, reducing strain and fatigue on the body. AutoStore workstations are designed to provide a comfortable working space, encouraging worker wellbeing and may lead to a retention of staff. The introduction of robots provides across the board improvements to safety, especially as these systems are optimized to take on such difficult tasks.

Although there is concern about widespread loss of jobs, one some of the main driving forces behind automation are the need to improve productivity, save space, all while minimizing the impact of worsening labor shortages, which are set to worsen over time. All advanced economies are seeing a growth in warehouse demand outstripping labor, especially as Japan, Europe, US and China are all facing declining workforces as a percentage of the population. The use of warehouse robots enables storage operations to scale on-demand, redeploy people to more valuable tasks, and reduce the risk of shortfalls caused by reliance on short-term seasonal labor. Uniquely human skills, such as knowledge, dexterity, and creativity, will increase in value as routine tasks are progressively automated. In some cases, due to the increased profitability and growth experienced by companies investing in automation, more warehouse jobs are created, although less physically straining.

Job satisfaction

The introduction of automation often has a positive effect on job satisfaction, as the heavy and repetitive jobs are taken over by robotics. For example, implementing AutoStore at PUMA has significantly improved employee satisfaction, as highlighted by Thomas Liske, Global Logistics Director at PUMA. He contrasts the traditional warehouse environment, often perceived as dark, dirty and strenuous, with the new AutoStore setup. "Now we can see people are very proud of working in an AutoStore environment, which is very clean and technology-driven," Liske remarks.

Watch PUMA share their experience introducing warehouse robotics

Training requirements

Some might be concerned about the training requirements of automated systems with warehouse robotics. This varies from system to system, but with AutoStore the training of new warehouse workers is incredibly efficient due to the human-friendly and intuitive user interface. For example, Knuspr requires only 1 hour to onboard new workers to work with their warehouse robotics system.

Furthermore, introducing automation and warehouse robots, when done correctly, will cause almost virtually no disruption to an existing operation. This is one area that AutoStore excels, as it has a very short installation time, minimizing disruption to the core business. Automated warehouse storage solutions like the Cube Storage Systems enable a wide variety of operations to deploy a form of tailored automation that can offer significant space and efficiency savings.

Choosing the right system

As a first step, as with all projects affecting your business, it is essential to do thorough due diligence on the various vendors, how they see your business, what systems they have worked on and what was the value their work delivered to their customers (via references). As a first step it is a good idea to reflect on a series of questions to make sure you are selecting the right system for you.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • How much space do you need?
  • Will this solution meet my peak demand?
  • What is the system uptime?
  • Will the solution grow with my business?
  • How accurate is the system?
  • How will the system improve our safety?
  • How quickly can the system be installed?
  • What are the installation and operational costs?
  • Will the system scale easily to support growth?

AutoStore produces has introduced a detailed vendor guide to help a business choose the right system to meet their needs.  Asking these questions at an early stage is also part of a dialogue with potential vendors, as many of the questions will require input from suppliers such as AutoStore. A simple question about space, for example, will also touch upon what type of space is available, the density of storage and capacity for expansion. It is also important to seek out references for equivalent systems at this early stage to inform your decision-making process.

Whichever system meets your needs, the direction of travel across the sector is toward more and more automation, as businesses discover how robotics can lower costs, streamline object handling and improve customer satisfaction, all of which translates into market share.

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Combining different robotic systems

To suit the various needs of a warehouse, some companies opt to install different types of robotics for different tasks within the warehouse. For example, some businesses install AutoStore systems for the storage and retrieval of goods, and AGVs for moving picked goods from picking stations to shipping locations. The most common AutoStore integration for moving picked goods from A to B are conveyor systems, as they are the most efficient. In some cases, however, due to the lack of flexibility once installed, some opt for AGVs.

まとめ

Since the Unimate #001 was installed, robotics has grown from strength to strength, with warehouse automation flourishing across the business sector. With a wide range of different systems on offer with varying costs, installation times and other factors, the question becomes: which is the right one for your business? If you would like to find out more about warehouse automation, please contact AutoStore and we will provide you with our recommendations, based on a wealth of experience across more than 1250+ systems in 49 countries.

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