Robots in the Warehouse: How You Can Use Robots in Your Operation
Robotics. If there ever was a buzzworthy word in warehouse and distribution center management, 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 works. Robotics already play an integral role in that shift, and will only continue to do so as the technologies become more and more sophisticated.
That being said, there is often some confusion about what, exactly, we mean when we say “robotics” in terms of warehouse management and order fulfillment.
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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, from AGVs and AGCs to AS/RS, G2P technology, and articulated arms all fall under this broad term.
Below, we discuss some of the different types of warehouse robotics that can be put in place to help an operation reduce labor costs, become more efficient, and weather labor shortages.
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 tech 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 both 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.
2. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Automated Guided Carts (AGCs)
AGVs and AGCs are two technologies often bundled together under the umbrella term of “robotics,” and it’s easy to see why. Both are used to 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 that are physically laid-out in routes around the facility. Others use advanced technology like LiDAR, camera vision, and infrared and other sensors to navigate in a semi-autonomous manner that allows them to avoid obstacles in their way. They differ in the fact that AGVs tend to handle much larger loads than the 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. Articulated Arms
Articulated robotic arms like the one shown below are another example of robotic technology that has permeated into the fields of distribution and manufacturing. These tools are essentially multi-jointed arms 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.
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.