Warehouse robotics – Technologies that transform logistics

The development of advanced robotics has a profound and positive impact on logistics. As more and more robots enter our warehouses, sorting centers and even help with final-mile delivery, the collaboration with robots will solve several pressing challenges – including labor availability, making the logistics supply chain faster, safer, and more productive.

Typically, warehouses receive, store, preserve, retrieve and deliver millions of products on a daily or weekly basis. Therefore, warehouse systems are being continuously revised to accommodate a continuous flow of products in logistics.

However, nearly 80% of current warehouses today are manually operated with no supporting automation. Only 15% of the warehouses are mechanized with material handling automation such as conveyors, sorters, goods-to-picker solutions, and other mechanized equipment to further improve the existing workforce’s productivity.

The recent advancements in robotics, such as autonomous mobile robots (AMR), exoskeletons, drones, automated guided vehicles (AGV), automated storage and retrieval system (AS and RS), and collaborative robots (cobots), are slowly opening up new possibilities. Now some companies have turned their attention towards logistics applications that were not previously possible.

Today, in almost every part of the logistics process, robots and automation improve efficiencies, from the warehouse to the customer’s door. Here are some of the tangible and clear benefits of adopting robotics in the logistics industry.

  • Increased order and inventory accuracy
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced labor costs by 60-80%.
  • Reduce insurance costs, utility costs, and warehouse costs.
  • Improved employee experience and working conditions
  • Better utilization of floor space
  • Reduced human error and increased delivery speed
  • Better workforce adaptability.
  • Improve safety for workers by taking over dangerous jobs such as getting items from high racks or storage spaces.
  • Increased customer satisfaction.

Several robotic companies produce different kinds of logistic robots designed to carry out specific tasks in a warehouse. Some larger companies offer fleets of robots that perform different tasks, while others offer specialized robots that handle specific functions such as sorting, packing, loading, unloading, storage, packaging, and delivery.

Let’s now explore some of the top advanced robotics technologies in logistics you must know.

1. Mobile Autonomous Rack System (MARS)

Mobile Autonomous Rack System (MARS) enhances an Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) capability to lift and transfer a mobile rack from/to a storage area to/from a workstation based on instructions from a WMS without human interference. This eliminates the walk distance for the order-picker, allowing it to remain stationary while AMRs are moving products to the workstation. The MARS can greatly increase the number of picks per hour and improve the order picker’s productivity by assigning non-value added and repetitive tasks to AMRs. The MARS will reduce travel time by 5 times, improve order-pickers’ productivity, improve speed, increase pick accuracy, lower operating costs, empower workers, reduce complexity, increase flexibility, increase modularity, and easy integration into existing environments.

Rather than following a fixed, predetermined path, the AMR interprets its environment and performs given tasks efficiently with the assistance of an on-board computer system and innovative sensors. Moreover, the MARS allows warehouses to be dynamically designed and optimized by arranging the number of AMRs employed.

Typically, a MARS consists of three components: AMRs, mobile racks, and workstations. The AMR is instructed to transfer a mobile rack between a storage location and a workstation by an on-board computer system or a central WMS, depending on the decision-making process. Handling a range of payloads from 100 kgs to 1500 kgs, an AMR moves underneath a mobile rack, lifts, and transports the mobile rack to a workstation (rotating about its center if necessary). After waiting until its turn in a buffer area, order(s) will be picked at a workstation by an order-picker. After immediately completing the order-picking process, the mobile rack will be transferred to a storage location with the location determined by a decision-making system depending on the frequency of demand for products stored in the mobile rack.

Some of the new startups providing MARS solutions are:

  • Scallog (Boby)
  • Swisslog (CarryPick)
  • Fetch Robotics (Freight500 and Freight1500)
  • Conveyco (GoFer-Bot)
  • Grenzebach (Grenzebach L600)
  • Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR100, MiR500, and MiR1000)
  • Knapp (Open Shuttle)
  • Clearpath Robotics (OTTO100, OTTO750, and OTTO1500)
  • Hitachi (Racrew)
  • GreyOrange (Ranger)

2. Autonomous Vehicle Storage and Retrieval System (AVS/RS)

Autonomous Vehicle Storage and Retrieval System (AVS/RS) improves traditional AS/RSs by allowing the number of robots to increase or decrease depending on the desired throughput capacity. Recent developments on movement patterns contribute greater flexibility and modularity, making the AVS/RS more flexible and extendable than a traditional AS/RS. Unlike storage/retrieval cranes in AS/RS, the autonomous vehicle or shuttle can access any storage/retrieval location at any level in any aisle. Therefore, the AVS/RS increases the warehouse’s storage density by using storage space more efficiently.

The AVS/RS will minimize running cost, reduce storage cost, increase throughput capacity to handle peak demands efficiently, increase picking quality by reducing failures, and increase flexibility.

The AVS/RS can be classified into three categories, depending on the system’s movement: horizontal, vertical, and diagonal systems. A horizontal AVS/RS requires autonomous vehicles to move products horizontally using rails and lifts to move autonomous shuttles vertically. Eliminating the necessity for using lifts, a vertical AVS/RS transfers products by allowing autonomous vehicles to travel in both vertical and horizontal directions (not simultaneously, first vertically, then horizontally, or vice versa). A diagonal AVR/RS was recently introduced by allowing the autonomous robot to travel in both horizontal and diagonal directions simultaneously.

Recently, different types of AVS/RS have been introduced by different companies, such as:

  • CycloneCarrier (Swisslog)
  • OSR Shuttle (Knapp)
  • Adapto (Vanderlande)
  • RackRacer (Fraunhofer)
  • iBot (OPEX)
  • Skypod (Exotec)

3. Compact Storage and Retrieval System (CS/RS)

Compact Storage and Retrieval System (CS/RS) expands storage capacity by optimizing space utilization. It allows achieving a very high storage density because the CS/RS does not require aisle structure.

A storage grid is formed by storing products in bins and storing bins on top of each other so that autonomous vehicles can operate on the top of the storage grid by storing/retrieving bins. Moreover, the CS/RS brings more flexibility to warehousing systems by allowing the storage grid to expand with more bins or employ additional robots or/and consignment modules.

CS/RS has four parts: the storage grid, bins, autonomous robots, and consignment modules. The storage grid offers space for bins to be stacked on top of each other. Products are stored and retrieved in bins randomly. Moving horizontally on top of the storage grid, autonomous robots lift bins and transport them to consignment modules. Any robot can move any carrier and transport it to any consignment module. Depending on the system specifications, consignment modules can be installed on one face or multiple faces of the CS/RS. Moreover, the CS/RS learns the order frequency of bins and stores them on the storage grid’s top layer.

4. Collaborative Robot System (CRS)

Collaborative Robot System (CRS) allows collaboration between humans and robots in order-picking processes that include moving pallets, bins, totes, containers, etc. Combining human skills with powerful CRSs, these are designed to work in close proximity with humans on boring, tedious, monotonous, and repetitive tasks, such as order-picking, sorting, packaging, tag reading, etc. Increasing the productivity of order-picking and transferring products faster, COBOTs are employed to follow or lead humans for a cost-effective, safe, and flexible warehouse environment. Below is the list of manufacturers developing warehouse cobots today:

  • 6 River System (Chuks)
  • Fetch Robotics (HM Shelf)
  • Locus Robotics (LocusBots)
  • Kollmorgen (Pick-n-Go)
  • GreyOrange (Ranger, Mobile Sort, and Ranger Pick)
  • Conveyco (Stacker-Bot)
  • lamRobotes (Swift)
  • Magazino (TORU and SOTO)

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