Robots in the Warehouse: How You Can Use Robots in Your Operation
Robotics. If you tried to pick the single most buzzworthy word in warehouse, distribution center, and supply chain management for the past few years, that would be it.
And for good reason: Warehouse automation technologies have made tremendous strides in recent years, promising to completely change the way that order fulfillment and material handling work as an industry. Robotics already play an integral role in that shift, and will only continue to do so as the technologies become more and more sophisticated, helping operations of all kinds address common challenges like:
- Decreased labor availability in the market
- Rising employment costs and wages
- Changing order profiles
- More complicated fulfillment strategies
- And more
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That being said, there is often some confusion about what, exactly, we mean when we say the word “robotics” in relation to warehouse management and order fulfillment.
Often, when people hear the term “robots” they think of extremely high-tech machines like the humanoid bots being created in Japan. But the truth is, the phrase “robotics” encompasses much more than these life-like creations—especially when it comes to the worlds of order fulfillment, materials handling, distribution, and supply chain logistics. Different levels of robotics, all fall under this broad term.
Below, we discuss some of the more common types of warehouse robotics that you may be able to utilize in your operation, including:
- Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
- Goods-to-Person technology (G2P)
- Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
- Automated Guided Carts (AGCs)
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
- Articulated Robotic Arms
1. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) and Goods-to-Person (G2P) Technology
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are a family of automated warehouse technology that helps to automate the inventory process, retrieving goods for use and then efficiently placing them back into storage once they are no longer needed. AS/RS is typically paired with warehouse execution software (WES) that manages the different processes taking place within an operation.
AS/RS comes in a variety of types, each of which is better suited to performing certain tasks and handling specific types of goods. These largely operate as either cranes, retrieving goods between aisles of product, or as shuttles, which navigate a fixed track between the racking structure. Once no longer needed, the goods will be returned to their slot.
Goods-to-person (G2P) technology is similar to AS/RS, and is often considered a subcategory of such. How G2P differs is in its application (though there are different types of Goods-to-Person technology) but the principle is the same: An automated storage system delivers SKUs to a stationary pick station, where the operator fills discrete orders.
Both AS/RS and goods-to-person technology work to increase efficiency by allowing low-skill tasks to be completed by machines so that your workers can perform more complicated tasks that can not be performed by automation, allowing them to add more value to your operation.
2. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Automated Guided Carts (AGCs)
AGVs and AGCs are two technologies that are often bundled together under the umbrella term of “robotics,” and it’s easy to see why. Both are used to automatically shuttle inventory, supplies, and materials from one location to another within your facility, allowing for a more streamlined replenishment process while also freeing up workers to perform higher-value tasks.
How exactly AGVs and AGCs navigate a warehouse depends on the specific model employed. Some follow magnetic strips or tracks that are physically laid-out in routes around the facility. Others may pair these tracks with other advanced technology like LiDAR, camera vision, and infrared and other sensors to navigate in a semi-autonomous manner that allows them to avoid obstacles along their predetermined route.
Though similar in many ways, AGVs and AGCs do have a number of differences. The largest of these differences is the fact that AGVs tend to handle much larger loads than their smaller cart counterparts.
Ultimately, AGVs and AGCs are used to complete work that would typically otherwise be done by a forklift operator (or fleet of operators) within your facility, moving product and materials from one location to the other. While essential to your operation, this is relatively low-skill work. By employing AGVs and AGCs for this transportation, your employees can perform tasks that add more value to your operation.
3. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are similar to AGVs and AGCs in many ways:
- They can navigate around a facility or warehouse without the need for human intervention
- They can be used to transport inventory or materials from one location to another
- They can facilitate a picking strategy
- And more
But though they can work to fulfill the same purpose within your operation, they are built upon very different technologies, which gives them different properties.
AGVs and AGCs typically operate by following a preset route between locations. These routes are established by laying some sort of physical guide: Magnetic strips, wires, sensors embedded in the floor, etc. These may be paired with technology like LiDAR, infrared, and cameras that allow the vehicle to identify obstacles and avoid accidents, but these elements are not used as the primary navigation.
Autonomous mobile robots, on the other hand, do not rely on such rigid, preset routes. Instead of following magnetic strips or wires, AMRs rely on an array of sophisticated onboard sensors, computers, and maps, which allows them to understand and interpret their environment. This gives them greater flexibility to create their own routes between locations within a warehouse or facility, identifying and avoiding obstacles and rerouting themselves when necessary. The end result is a robot that is much better able to deal with the dynamic environment offered by most order fulfillment operations.
4. Articulated Robotic Arms
Articulated robotic arms are another example of robotic technology that has permeated into the fields of distribution and manufacturing. These tools are essentially multi-jointed limbs that can be used to lift, move, turn, and otherwise manipulate a range of goods within a warehouse or distribution center.
In this capacity, an articulated robotic arm can be put to use in a range of functions within an operation, including:
- Receiving/storage: As product arrives at your facility, an articulated arm can be put to use de-palletizing product and moving it to racks.
- Production: When goods are made in-house, articulated arms can maneuver heavy product much more easily than workers, and can be used in environments that may otherwise be harmful to human operators.
- Picking/Packing: For operations afflicted with poor labor supply, smaller articulated robotic arms can even be used to perform picking and packing duties that would more traditionally be handled by workers.
- Shipping: These machines can also be used to palletize large orders in the most efficient cube.
Using Tech to Unlock Your Operation’s Potential
Depending on the operation, robotics can play a very important role in reducing labor costs and reducing the impact of labor shortage, impacting everything from receiving to storage to picking, sortation, and packing. From AS/RS and G2P to AGVs and AGCs to autonomous mobile robots and articulated robotic arms, there is bound to be some type of robot that you can utilize in your operation.
That being said, exactly what level of robotics makes sense for your own operation will be highly dependent on the specifics of your business and industry. A skilled systems integrator can help you determine which solutions make the most sense for you.