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Warehousing plays a pivotal role in the supply chain and distribution. It’s always had challenges in optimizing workflows, keeping pace with volume, and reducing costs related to labor. The pandemic exploited these issues, much in part to e-commerce growth and fulfillment. Countering these long-standing challenges led to the industry adopted flexible, scalable automation at an accelerated rate, including warehouse robotics.

Demand for Warehouse Automation High

Warehouse operations leaders want to automate as much as possible. This demand is evident in a survey of such leaders, with 51% saying it was a top-three near-term goal. Another report declared that 96% of warehouse officials expect automation as a value proposition to increase in the next three years.

The industry’s desire to adopt automation, specifically robotics, translated into manufacturers raising more funding and stock shares. With such fervor, how exactly can this technology improve warehouse operations? Let’s dive in.

How Can You Use Warehouse Robotics?

Robotics for warehousing are flexible platforms that can support many use cases.

Move and Process with Accuracy and Speed

The most common use case for robotics in a warehouse is moving items and processing them. In this situation, it removes the need for more forklifts and drivers. The types of robots that facilitate this are autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

AMRs use sensors and AI capabilities to move around without human intervention. They are flexible and fast as well as highly accurate. They can quickly adapt to changes, such as “learning” the difference between permanent and temporary obstacles.

Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs) work in much the same way as AMRs and can perform the same tasks. However, AGVs follow a predefined path via lasers and cannot adjust their route. Much of the time, their usage is for heavy loads in a repeatable path that’s not subject to traffic.

Walmart, which pledged to invest over 14 billion in supply chain and automation, announced it would implement robotics into 25 distribution centers. After a successful pilot program, they recognized the benefits and need to automate to meet customer needs relating to e-commerce.

In this solution, they save time in moving product and processing it. Human processing can’t match that speed. Additionally, they’ll be able to ensure accuracy with flexible, intelligent systems.

Another company using robotics to move material from the dock to the line is GE Appliances. They commenced an AMR pilot, wanting more flexibility in routing. Harry Chase, Director of Advanced Materials GE Appliances, said the adoption of the technology came down to safety, visibility, and the lack of staffing.

Master Goods to Picker Methodology with Shuttle Systems

In most warehouses, storage is in pallet racking. Accessing it can be time-consuming, but shuttle systems deliver expediently. They pick up the pallets and move them to the end of the structure, eliminating the need for more forklifts.

Shuttle systems immediately increase input and accelerate the circulation of outgoing orders and replenishment goods entering the warehouse. Additionally, they make rack management easier and allow you to increase rack depth to maximize square footage.

Shuttle system usage adoption led the way in emerging automation, according to a survey. Nearly half of respondents said its adoption would occur within the next few years.

Optimize Pallet Building and Customer Fulfillment Picking and Sorting

Traditional picking is labor-intensive. For pallet picking, workers spend most of their time on a forklift going back and forth or using a manual pallet jack. Employees must find the right product SKU. It’s a perfect storm of inefficiency and congestion, which can lead to greater safety risks.

For customer fulfillment, it’s an even bigger strain. It’s also not the best use of labor, which is hard to find and growing more expensive for companies.

In both situations, AMRs can eliminate tedious manual work. Another option is pocket sorters.

Pocket sorters are overhead systems that rely on “pockets” to store or convey products. They have high adoption in e-commerce operations, specifically items like apparel and shoes that fit the pouch and aren’t fragile. They are faster, require minimal human touch, and are highly versatile.

How Warehouses Are Using Robotics for Fulfillment 

One industry that saw an explosion in picking is grocery. Kroger, U.S.’s largest grocery retailer, recently opened a new fulfillment center that uses robotics to improve picking efficiency.

Asda Logistics Services (ALS) and AMH Material Handling also use robotics for sorting to increase capacity. They added 60 robots to a distribution center that can sort 2,000 parcels an hour with a 99,99% accuracy.

A tight labor market and sharp increase in e-commerce orders were the drivers of Port Logistics Group’s deployment of 150 autonomous mobile robots to support fulfillment processes. As a result, they reported a 15% increase in productivity.

What Are the Benefits of Using Robotics in Warehousing?

Using robotics in warehousing delivers many benefits and solves labor and productivity problems. They truly provide an advantage to companies in more way than one:

  • Improve safety: Warehouse injuries are prevalent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.You can reduce these with robotics carrying heavy loads, and workers no longer need to do repetitive tasks.
  • Boost efficiency: Autonomous robots become an extension of your labor force. Automation with robotics can quickly improve productivity numbers without adding headcount.
  • Enhance accuracy: Human error or lack of trackability causes errors in picking, which leads to profit losses and frustrated customers. You can be more confident in accuracy with robotics.
  • Reduce labor costs: Labor costs are often the highest budget number for warehouses. With a tight market, that’s only going up. Robotics deliver ROI quickly and help keep your costs in line.
  • Put employees to better use: If robots are doing the basics, your people can do more high-level work instead of moving around in circles.

The Challenges of Deploying Warehouse Robotics

The challenges with deploying robot automation in warehouses vary by the end-user. It could be a cost issue, although robots are much more affordable.

More likely, it’s an implementation and integration challenges of how they’ll reconfigure or redesign a space to accommodate robots. You also need the infrastructure to support it. However, working with the right provider can help you plan and find the right fit.

Another concern is finding the best technology for a specific need. Some warehouse robotics don’t offer customization options. Thus, it’s important to define the requirements before you decide on what and how to deploy.

Segway Robotics Is Ready to Support the Warehouse Industry

Segway Robotics is building something unique—a mobility platform to address many applications in robotics. With these solutions, warehouses can achieve their goals through reliable, robust robotics.

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