While industrial robotic machines and automatons have been used in production plants for years, recent advances in AI have led to the emergence of a new breed of 'intelligent' robots that represent the future of warehouse automation.
According to Maria Kaplan in her article titled Will Robots Take Over Ecommerce Warehouses?, the very first warehouse robots, Kiva System's automated guided vehicles, or bots, were used by Amazon in their fulfillment centers. In 2012, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems and renamed the company Amazon Robotics. Today there are almost 30,000 bots in operation spread across 10 massive Amazon warehouses.
These bots can pick up entire shelves of products and deliver them to packing stations in different areas of a warehouse. Sensors prevent collisions and an algorithm determines the most popular items and the closest supply.
Advantages of Total Warehouse Automation
The ARC Advisory Group's report on global warehouse automation and control market in 2015 titled Warehouse Automation Market Experiencing Dramatic Growth states that, "Rapid growth in the worldwide market for warehouse automation and control systems is being driven primarily by the global boom in e-commerce, and its profound effects on fulfillment requirements."
Unlike a human labor force, robots do not require vacation time, sick days, paid leave, lunch breaks or health insurance. Since retailers are looking for new ways to reduce both operations and logistics costs and delivery time, robots offer an attractive, cost-saving alternative to traditional human labor.
Robots in e-commerce Warehouses
With Amazon Robotics leading the way, there are many new entrants in the autonomous mobile robotics (AMR) market that boast improvements in the management, control and automation of warehouse operations.
While some offer the benefits of completely automated pick-and-package systems, others specialize in logistics operations for high-volume orders. Some warehouses are also experimenting with special robots for speed-sorting where parcels are sorted and packaged based on their size, weight and dimensions.
A related industry that is also on the rise includes self-driving transport vehicles that automate the delivery of materials in warehouses. They assist in performing tasks like receiving, unloading, inventory RAW, WIP, FG, shipping, loading, fulfillment, pick/pack and palletizing. A variant of these automated vehicles can be programmed for trackless navigation.
Some of the most popular and expensive warehouse automatons are the multi-robot fulfillment systems that work alongside humans to transport totes containing scanned items to the warehouse. These robots travel in a fleet and can navigate autonomously under the guidance of a server. Some can also pick up entire mobile racks and deliver them to workstations staffed by humans.
Disadvantages of Automations
With the average cost of a warehouse robot around $35,000, complete automation is a dream for smaller retailers. The high cost of automation versus human employee salaries, perks and benefits is the limiting factor that prevents most retailers from completely automating their warehouse control and material handling systems.
The prospect of losing jobs to automatons also has labor unions and employee groups up in arms. While most people enjoy some assistance from robots in their jobs, a fully automated warehouse would remove the need for humans to perform basic repetitive tasks.
The Robotics Era
Automation may hold the key to gaining a competitive edge in the market, which is why many big ecommerce retailers are converting to keep up with current global trends. The emergence of new 'smart' robots has reduced the time and effort required to scan and update stock inventory, pack parcels, arrange items on shelves and complete other related tasks.
Janney Capital Markets predicts that retailers in North America will reduce fulfillment costs by $450 million to $900 million in coming years. It seems that a future of total warehouse automation with increasingly sophisticated features and facilities is at hand.