Back to the Basics of Robotics in Supply Chain and Warehouse Management

    Posted by John Santagate on Jan 2, 2020 9:00:00 AM


    The next five years show potential for massive growth of robotics in supply chain management. Here’s how warehouse robots can reduce costs and increase efficiency in the warehouse.

    While it may seem like the entire logistics and supply chain management industry is talking about robotics, the hype has not yet led to widespread adoption. In fact, recent research from DHL shows that 80 percent of warehouses are still manually operated.[1] However, we expect that to change as the technologies mature, managers flip their mindset from manual to automated operations, and the warehouse labor shortages continue to push businesses to alternate workforce solutions.

    There are many benefits offered by warehouse robotics. From workforce shortage solutions to improvements in inventory management to increased safety and reduced risk of employee injuries, the operational value is there. Also, there’s a concept of logistics elasticity that comes into play here. With robotics, we refer to this elasticity as the enhanced strategic capabilities afforded through robotics. Examples could be quickly deploying more units to support increased demand during peak or re-programming robots at scale to implement new processes.

    There’s a lot of moving pieces in the robotics field right now. So, we thought it would be good to hit pause and go back to the basics. Here’s a general overview of robotics in the supply chain, including what the different technologies can do to enhance everyday operations.

    What Are the Most Common Types of Warehouse Robotics?

    Autonomous Mobile Robots

    Also known as AMRs, these robots are self driving devices that come in a variety for forms, functions, and capabilities. AMR’s are essentially an evolutionary step from autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs). Autonomous mobile devices have become increasingly complex in recent years, maturing from technology that required guidance mechanisms (such as guide wires, magnetic tape, and other navigation markers) to being able autonomously map a facility and navigate based upon a software defined map. AMR’s can navigate around obstacles and human workers through a combination of lasers, scanners, 3D cameras, and audio-visual warning indicators.

    AMRs are useful for a variety material movement related tasks such as order picking, replenishment, sortation, and bulk material transportation. Some require little human intervention where as others are designed as collaborative robotics meant to operate in tandem with humans in the process.

    Furthermore, AMRs are able to identify where items are in the warehouse, calculate the most efficient route for retrieval and drop off, and even return themselves to charging docks when their batteries are low.

    Collaborative Robots

    Collaborative robots, or “co-bots” as they’re sometimes called, function in tandem with human workers to increase overall warehouse efficiency. Collaborative robots can be either a mobile robot or a fixed arm robot meant to safely operate in close proximity, and sometimes in direct collaboration, with humans in the work process. Co-bots are an excellent example of how robotics are being used as a tool to augment human workers by freeing up warehouse employees to attend to tasks that require more creative problem-solving skills, while allowing the robot to work on more mundane and repetititve tasks.

    Using a combination of AI, advanced robotics mobility, computer vision, and sensors, co-bots are able to safely perform work tasks in the warehouse while not posing a risk to human workers. Some of these collaborative robots can be out on the warehouse floor within eight hours of set-up. Many feature accessible user interfaces, allowing them to be easily configured, programmed, and managed by anyone with basic computer skills.

    Autonomous Inventory Robots

    AMRs can also streamline warehouse inventory management. Whereas performing inventory sweeps manually can be cumbersome to organize and execute (to the point that these projects often occur far less frequently than they should), AMRs can potentially do inventory sweeps using RFID-tagged products every few hours to provide supply chain managers with real-time updates.

    Increased data collection at regular intervals can also be used to map and visualize product storage, make adjustments to warehouse layout, and eliminate potential inventory errors in the process. RFID tags can be detected from up to 1,500 feet away,[2] enabling these robots to determine inventory far faster and more efficiently than their human counterparts. RFID robots also save on costs in the long run, as they cut down on unnecessary labor, excess waste, and operational inefficiencies.

    Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

    Unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) are essentially drones outfitted to function within a warehouse environment. When equipped with RFID technology, they’re able to provide much more complex and detailed views of warehouse inventory, which can be synced with inventory management systems via web applications.

    A combination of multidirectional sensors and navigational algorithms help prevent collision with other drones or objects in the warehouse, while also keeping human workers safe by removing the need to scale tall shelves or scaffolds in order to collect inventory.

    The Future of Robotics Supply Chains

    The next five years will likely show increases in robotics deployed as a part of warehouse logistics. As AMRs take over more of the low-value and high-risk tasks involved in supply chain management, human workers are free to take on more strategic tasks that are less dangerous, require creative problem solving, and provide greater value.

    The efficiency and intelligence of robotics will also increase alongside technological developments, meaning that they will be able to do more complex tasks, require less supervision and maintenance, and integrate more tightly with workers. Robotics are a big part of the supply chain of the future, and we’re excited to see how these solutions open new doors for fulfillment.

    Topics: Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), supply chain, Robotics