Integrating robots into the smart warehouse of the future

By Richard Gilliard, CEO, Renovotec.

  • 2 months ago Posted in

The transformative impact of robotics is creating a buzz across the logistics sector. Of particular interest are Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) with their ability to operate without human oversight and roam free of a set path making them fit for an impressive array of tasks.

The efficiency benefits of self-driving AMRs in the warehouse include reduced labour costs, increased workforce productivity, improved accuracy and better scalability. No wonder Next Move Strategy Consulting is expecting the global AMR market to be worth $22.15 billion by 2030.

Any kind of added efficiency and saved cost is important in a supply chain industry still recovering from the impact of COVID-19. Once the UK’s National Living Wage increases by 9.8% to £11.44/hour in April 2024, an already overburdened industry will be under still greater pressure given the high volume of employees needed in a typical distribution centre and the challenge of high staff turnover. Robots and automation can, quite literally, step in and save the day.

Embracing Autonomous Mobile Robots

Automated robots never get tired, can work 24/7, and have no aversion to taking on the laborious, hazardous, and heavy-lifting work that can tire humans. Using a combination of advanced sensors, cameras and software algorithms, they can understand their surroundings, navigate around permanent and temporary obstructions, plot the most efficient path, and carry out tasks independently.

Let’s be clear that this is not about taking the human workforce out of the equation. When integrated into the warehouse in harmony with human workers and with other technologies, robots can deliver massive ROI and help humans do their jobs better and more efficiently. If we take the example of Order Picking, humans and robots can work together as a team, further enhanced with the integration of other complementary technologies such as voice-directed technology and machine vision. The cost-saving benefits can be huge when you consider that a robot combined with voice technology can halve the number of steps taken by a typical picker in one day.

But the job of choosing the right AMR for your warehouse can be challenging. There are many different AMR solutions on offer, including those from traditional automation providers seeking to jump on the AMR bandwagon. Getting the right AMR solution from the outset and prioritising smooth integration with your WMS (Warehouse Management Systems) and other complementary technologies will make all the difference.

Despite the challenges, now is the right time to start thinking about introducing robots into your warehouse if you haven’t already. Here are some considerations to get you on your journey.

Choosing the right AMR

If we take Order Picking as an example, the fundamental first considerations should be related to size and space. It’s about choosing the right sized AMR for the product line, one that can work efficiently in the dimensions of your warehouse. The following are some of the options to weigh up:

1. Collaborative AMRs

Collaborative AMRs can be used when space is a challenge and there is no option or need to change the layout of the operation. These robots can dramatically reduce the amount of walking time for an operator with the robot completing the hard miles for your warehouse business. E-commerce picking fulfillment for small items is a good use case for this type of solution.

2. Goods to Man AMRs

Goods to Man AMRs can provide extremely high productivity gains for both put away and picking. You need a large open space where robots will work in a cordoned-off area with no people. Workstations are required where the robot will bring a rack or pallet to the operator to either pick from or for put away items to be placed onto.

3. Point to Point AMRs

Point to point movements are arguably the simplest sort of AMR solution to implement and in some cases do not need any integration. Usually, they use a compatible trolley and or stillage to move goods from point A to point B. One use case could be for end of pick process where the operator finishes picking and leaves the trolley in a predefined area for the robot to collect and take to the dispatch or packing bench. These solutions can interact with traditional conveyors and collect pallets and totes using roller top AMRs.

Supercharging AMRs with sensory smart tech

Robots that contribute to the hard labour of the smart warehouse can be further enhanced when combined with other sensory technologies. For example:

Machine vision: eyes for the smart warehouse

Machine vision replaces the human eye with processes used to enable robots and computers to visually perceive and interpret their surroundings. They use advanced imaging techniques like cameras, sensors, and imaging processing algorithms to mimic

the capabilities of human vision and allow them to be used to enhance business processes.

Voice-directed warehousing: hands for the smart warehouse

Voice-directed warehousing (VDW), also known as voice picking, is a paperless, hands-free, and eyes-free system that utilises industry-leading technology to automate a myriad of warehousing processes. Back in the 1990s, voice technology relied on more cumbersome devices that were merely limited to picking functions. Today voice-directed solutions can solve a multitude of issues in the supply chain to optimise and automate all manual, hands-on processes and enhance the productivity of robots and humans, areas like packing & consolidation, replenishment & short filling, truck loading & and shipping and cross-docking.

RFID: sensors for the smart warehouse

Radio Frequency ID (RFID) technology revs up operations by automatically locating tagged objects at greater speed, with improved accuracy and scale over traditional methods.

Robots can manage and track inventory in real-time, using barcode readers, RFID readers as they scan and identify products, update databases, and trigger restocking or replenishment orders when necessary. This can help reduce errors, improve accuracy, and enable you to make better decisions regarding stock, demand forecasts and order fulfilment.

Start small and scale up for maximum ROI

AMRs can be easily and quickly integrated into existing systems and workflows to help support faster deployment without unnecessary disruption. You won’t need to modify your existing environment or waste time implementing this technology but instead can benefit almost immediately.

The key takeaway is to make sure you use the flexibility and scalability that these types of solution can bring, where possible starting small so you can learn how the solution will impact your operation. We have customers who have introduced robots just to manage waste, and that alone has taken one person out of the cost.

For the long-term, AMR is a critical and evolving technology and asset for any warehouse for fulfilling orders accurately, reaping labour efficiency ROI and keeping customers satisfied.

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