Warehouse automation: an accelerating trend
In warehouses—and across business sectors—robots and cobots are boosting operational efficiency and productivity. There are many factors driving the increased use of automation. Chief among them is the e-commerce boom, as a result of which logistics platforms now have to process huge numbers of orders—especially during busy periods such as Christmas, sales, Black Friday, and standalone promotions—with ever-shorter lead times in order to satisfy the demands of customers who expect their items to arrive quickly. Robots perform some tasks more efficiently and with greater precision than human operators, which helps reduce the risk of errors, raises service standards, and shortens fulfillment lead times. In turn, this boosts customer satisfaction and can potentially spur business growth.
Companies are also increasingly turning to logistics robots because labor is in short supply: according to Gartner’s “Supply Chain Technology User Wants and Needs Survey,” some 30% of surveyed companies cited recruitment problems as one of the major challenges facing their organization. And 59% of these businesses said that this labor shortage was leading them to consider automation.
Robots can also take care of repetitive, low-value-added tasks, lift heavy loads, handle hazardous products, and more. In doing so, they help reduce the risk of workplace accidents and musculoskeletal disorders, as well as improve employee wellbeing.
Last but not least, falling purchase and integration costs for robots are also playing a part in boosting uptake in logistics warehouses.
Boosting warehouse productivity with robots
Every task performed in a warehouse can be automated, from palletization and depalletization, order picking, and packing, to moving products between storage zones, labeling, inventory management, transporting parcels to loading docks, and more. Automation also has the potential to optimize warehouse space through more compact storage.
Various types of robots can be used in logistics warehouses:
- Automated guided vehicles (AGVs)
- Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)
- Palletization/depalletization robots
- Conveyor systems
- Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS)
- Robotic sorting, packing, and pick and place systems
- Inventory robots
- Automated robotic labeling systems
- Box assembly machines
- Automated shrink-wrap machines
- Drones, and more
Warehouse automation: use cases by sector
Companies in every sector, without exception, are now deploying mechanized systems, robots, and cobots (collaborative robots) in their logistics warehouses—from e-commerce, retail, and manufacturing, to pharmaceuticals, food processing and, of course, logistics providers (3PL). Some sample use cases are detailed below.
- E-commerce: this sector is more advanced than most when it comes to warehouse automation, with robots and systems for transporting goods to storage locations and picking stations, preparing and assembling orders, packing, carrying parcels to loading docks, conducting inventories, and more.
- Retail and distribution: in this sector, robots are used for palletization/depalletization, transporting goods to storage locations and picking stations, bulk pallet storage, automated order picking, product packing and shelf stocking, replenishment, conducting inventories, and more.
- Manufacturing: in factories, robots have for many years been used for production, handling, assembly, and quality control. They automate the line-side supply of raw materials and finished products, as well as order picking and packing.
- Food processing: packing, labeling, co-packing, and palletization are just some of the tasks that are often automated in this industry.
- Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics: companies in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry use robots for the same types of tasks that are automated in other sectors (order picking, automated storage and retrieval, palletization, and shipping). But robots also allow them to perform tasks requiring a high degree of sterility and safety, and achieve full compliance with pharmaceutical regulations.
- Logistics providers (3PL): logistics providers employ mechanized systems, robots, and cobots to boost productivity and raise service standards. They cover all logistics processes within the warehouse: transporting goods to storage locations, order picking, packing, transporting parcels, palletization and depalletization, co-packing, truck loading and unloading, and more.
Orchestrating tasks allocated to robots in real time
Slowly but surely, companies are deploying fleets of different robots, from different suppliers, to perform varied and typically complementary tasks. It is not enough to simply integrate each robot with the warehouse management system individually: automated warehouses need a WMS that can orchestrate the tasks allocated to all robots, based on real-time or near-real-time information. And, of course, the software needs to take account of the organization’s specific business activities, as well as the capabilities of each automated system, with the ultimate aim of making it faster, easier, and cheaper to integrate new robotic agents.
Our Reflex WMS software is natively designed to meet the challenges of automated warehouses. The WCS Master module streamlines communication with mechanized systems and robots, delivering more efficient orchestration of mechanized and/or automated processes.
Related article : Logistics: the augmented operator at the core of the connected warehouse