You could say that implementing robotics in warehouse operations is nothing new. After all, “dumb robots” have been used for some time now for performing repetitive tasks. The advancements in artificial intelligence have also introduced us with their smart counterparts, which can perform duties on their own or cooperate with humans. It seems that this cutting-edge technology is changing the way work is handled in warehouses around the globe, and taking it to the next level.
We are the Robots
As usual, it is from the shoulders of the industry giants that we can see the horizon of the future. Take the example of Amazon, which uses some 30,000 robots in their warehouses. Manufactured by the Kiva Systems, these automatons can pick items from the shelves and bring them to the human worker. As a result, the orders are filled two to three times faster than previous methods. Robots can even use advanced algorithms to “figure out” what objects are most used, and put them closest to the picker.
This goods-to-person concept has been copied around the world. Fetch Robotics, a Silicon Valley-situated company, has followed the example by launching a Fetch and Freight system. It consists of two robots that cover all aspects of pick and pack process. Coming with support software, these robots can be efficiently integrated into warehouse systems. Other companies have also made an effort to streamline workflows in warehouses and jump on the tech bandwagon.
Indeed, many companies have grasped the advantages of using technology in dealing with high-volume and high-value orders. Others utilize high-speed sorting systems in order to prepare them for shipping. These developments have propelled warehouse operations towards complete automation.
Yet, despite all the potential system improvements that are now available, the capital investments in material handling equipment have plummeted since the financial crises. This has led many warehouses to use systems that are at least 15 years old.
So, there is definitely room for improvement. Of course, the performance advantages of using robots are obvious, in that they can work 24/7, don’t need health insurance, a coffee break or vacation time. Moreover, warehouse managers are under pressure to reduce logistics and fulfillment costs, and deliver goods quickly. As more and more people turn to online purchases, meeting customer needs becomes an imposing task. It turns out that the new tech is arriving just in time and filling the gaping void.
When it comes to workers, this technology can reduce the strain on their bodies and spares them of the monotonous tasks that can lead to injury.
Increasingly, companies are coming to the conclusion that “hybrid” scenarios make a lot of sense whereby few workers can effectively manage, program and maintain robots across the warehouse that, in the end, can lead to greater productivity and performance of output. This strategy isn’t without cost … Robots are still costly: Fetch robots, for example, cost around $35,000 each. On top of that, some commercial builders might need to be hired for integrating the new tech in the warehouse processes. This is no small investment, but it should pay off in the long run.
The Age of Automation
Many warehouses are converting to automation in an attempt to stay competitive or gain an edge over the competition. New software solutions make it easy to handle, operate and schedule robots and workers as a complete solution that can evolve and improve over time. The momentum and incentive to acquire new technologies definitely exists. So, are we on the brink of an age of robots? Some would argue we are already there. The face of ecommerce warehousing facilities is certainly evolving – and isn’t likely to stop now. Change is never immediate, but over time, it is highly likely the role of robots in the warehouse will continue to expand.
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