Warehouse Robotics:

Your Guide to Warehouse Robots in 2021.

In recent years, warehouse automation has made huge leaps and bounds in a number of areas, especially robotics. More businesses than ever before are now incorporating robots into their logistics operation to access the benefits they can offer, including better productivity, improved accuracy, and a boost in workplace safety and satisfaction.

If you’re not familiar with warehouse robotics or aren’t sure what they can offer your company, this guide is an excellent starting point to find out more. Here, we’ll cover topics like:

What are Warehouse Robots?

Warehouse robots are specialised automated robots used for completing essential warehouse tasks, such as picking, sorting, and transportation. Over recent years, they have incorporated more advanced sensors and processing capabilities, as well as being increasingly supported by warehouse management systems to help maximise their efficiency.

As a result of these advances, warehouse robots are swiftly establishing themselves as an integral part of the supply chain. In fact, the global warehouse automation market has been forecast to grow to $27 billion by 2025, more than doubling its value from $13 billion in 2018. This means that more and more businesses are recognising that an investment in warehouse robotics can deliver a range of benefits to their operation, a trend that is set to continue.

What are Warehouse Robotics used for?


Warehouse robots can aid in a wide variety of essential warehouse tasks. Because of this, they can play a huge role in warehouse automation, which in turn can deliver huge benefits for your business. Let’s take a look in more detail at what type of operations can be assisted with robotics.

Picking

Picking is the task of locating and extracting the right stock to fulfil an order, and it’s the type of work that warehouse robots are most heavily involved in. Whether the robot is assisting a worker, or it is carrying out the picking themselves, there are a number of options that can enhance the process.

Robots are often deployed to work alongside warehouse workers, frequently acting as a guide to the next picking location. Advanced robots are capable of plotting the most efficient route around the warehouse and can make decisions on the go as new orders come in. This means that a worker can easily navigate the space without making wrong turns or spending time figuring out where to go.

Some robots, such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), are sophisticated enough to both navigate around the warehouse and pick stock themselves, before transporting it. A process known as goods-to-person picking, where the robot completes the picking task before returning to a worker so they can process the order, is often used. This method cuts down the time spent moving around the warehouse for the worker, allowing them to focus on more complex aspects of fulfilling the order.

Sorting

Sorting can be a complex process that takes time when completed manually by humans. There are now warehouse robots equipped with cameras and sensors that are capable of performing the task much more quickly and efficiently than workers, with a much lower margin of error.

This can be particularly useful if you warehouse uses a batch or zone picking method, where many items are brought together and need to be sorted into individual orders. A robot completing the task can scan and identify inventory at speed, then sort them into their required grouping. Thanks to their optics, access to inventory data, and sorting algorithms, this task is virtually automatic, so there’s essentially no need for human input.  

Robots can also be used at other stages of the process, such as for replenishment, returns, or when parcels need to be sorted once packed.

Transportation

Transporting inventory around a warehouse is one of the most laborious and time-consuming tasks for workers, but robots can easily improve the process. Whether individual items need to be picked and moved, or whole pallets or heavy bins need to be relocated, there are robots that can help.

We’ve already discussed how autonomous mobile robots are capable of performing picking and transporting duties themselves, minimising the need for workers to move about the warehouse floor. But there are also other types of robot that are capable of assisting in the transportation of inventory. For instance, automatic guided vehicles (AGV) can move batches of picked goods or heavy loads along a pre-programmed route without any assistance, while drones can accurately pick and move stock from hard-to-reach locations. There are even automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) that can completely mechanise the entire stock movement of a warehouse.

Replenishment and putaway

Warehouse robotics can also aid in stock replenishment and putaway tasks, both by ensuring that stock levels are as up to date as possible and by handling the labour-intensive parts of the job.

Some advanced robots are capable of tracking inventory levels and completing stock counts, then updating the information available through the warehouse management system. By automating the replenishment of goods, these robots can ensure there are no stockouts and that backorders are kept to a minimum. It’s possible to deploy robots solely dedicated to these tasks, but some smart models are capable of updating stock data as they go about other tasks.

When it comes to the actual task of replenishment or putaway of stock, robots can also assist. At the most basic level, the likes of AGVs can move items to where they need to be. However advanced robots, like AMRs, are capable of task interleaving, which means they can receive both picking and replenishment tasks at the same time and carry them out in the most efficient order. This might mean carrying out the tasks themselves, or guiding a worker in the optimal order of handling them

Types of warehouse robots.

There are a number of warehouse robots that are used across the industry. They serve a variety of purposes, from stock movement and picking to delivery. Below, we’ve covered the types that are most commonly used and may find useful for your own operation:

  • Automated guided vehicles (AGVs)
  • Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)
  • Automated storage and retrieval systems (AR/RS)
  • Articulated robot arms
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)

What are automated guided vehicles?

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are robots that are used to transport stock and materials around the warehouse, often from section to section or moving picked stock to a packing area. Depending on the model, the robot may transport its load in a particular way or may have extra functions. For instance, some models carry a load themselves, while others are designed to tow a trailer or to pick up and move pallets. Some even have forklift capabilities to service loads at height.

AGVs were one of the first types of warehouse robotics used widely. Originally, they replaced manually-driven vehicles with an automatic system that followed established routes marked by wire, magnetic tracks, floor sensors, and other physical cues. Since the 90s, AGVs have relied more on cameras, infrared, and laser guidance systems, removing the need for tapes and sensors on routes. They are now capable of moving along their pre-set path without external aid and navigating around and reacting to potential hazards, as well as communicating with other robots in the area to ensure a smooth transition.

What are autonomous mobile robots?

Autonomous mobile robots are sophisticated robots that can navigate dynamic warehouse environments on their own. Unlike AGVs, they have no need for any extra guidance, instead using a range of visual, audial, thermal, and touch-based sensors, as well as on board maps and computers. As a result, AMRs are able to perceive their surroundings and make route planning decisions, even to the point where they can re-route if they experience an obstacle.

AMRs are multi-purpose robots that are capable of handling a range of tasks. They are well-suited to moving stock around the warehouse, including delivering goods to pickers and packers, and can even be programmed to follow pickers around or move ahead of them to the next stop on their route. In addition, thanks to their advanced sensors, AMRs can identify and process information on packaging, which means they can be used to conduct putaway, sorting, and inventory check tasks.

Autonomous mobile robots are a relatively new development in warehouse robotics, emerging in the early 2010s and only seeing widespread adoption from 2018 onwards. However, due to their efficiency and accuracy, they are expected to experience rapid growth in the warehousing sector.

What is an automated storage and retrieval system?

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are complete computer-controlled robotic systems that can automate the process of moving goods for shipping, as well as putting them away. They’re typically large-scale systems that consist of a shuttle or crane on fixed tracks that can pick up and put down items via aisles in a warehouse. This operation is usually controlled by advanced warehouse software that can direct the movement of stock as and when it’s needed.

The main advantage of this type of warehouse robot is that it can deliver a complete goods-to-person system, where workers don’t need to move from their station, as the inventory is brought directly to them for packing or processing, saving time and effort. Stock can also be precisely monitored and controlled, with very little margin for costly human error.

AS/RS systems are very well suited for use in conjunction with high density storage, where stock is stored vertically in a compact space. This layout would be impractical to navigate with a human workforce, but with a complete AS/RS solution that has access to the entire inventory, stock can be moved efficiently and rapidly with zero safety concerns.

What are articulated robotic arms?

Articulated robotic arms are a type of warehouse robot that consists of a multi-jointed limb that can pick up, move, and put down stock. They are usually used to manoeuvre heavy items and pallets for storage, picking and packing, receiving, and vehicle loading purposes, though they are quite versatile and can be adapted for a whole range of tasks. The obvious advantage of these robots is that they can handle duties that would be unsafe for workers to carry out, making your operation safer, while also increasing the amount of inventory that can be moved in one go to maximise productivity.

What are unmanned aerial vehicles?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often referred to as drones, are a type of robot that combines flight capabilities with functionality in logistics. These devices can be equipped with cameras and scanners for accuracy and stocktaking purposes, as well as systems for lifting and moving lightweight cargo.

Though not currently as widespread as the other types of warehouse robot, UAVs are increasingly being used for logistics. At the moment, their main function is for inventory checking, where they fly on a programmed routine to scan and report back on stock levels. Typically, they are equipped with RFID scanners, and also have the capability to upload data straight to the warehouse management system to provide access to real time data. Because drones can fly, they offer a great advantage when trying to reach inventory stored at height or when compact environments need to be navigated.

In recent years, the aim for many companies has been to develop UAVs capable of delivering goods over short distances, which would open up the possibilities for quick and easy local drop-off near to a warehouse facility. The main intention behind this research is to reduce the costs of last-mile delivery, which can typically account for 50% of total distribution costs[i], but drone delivery can also offer a more eco-friendly solution for companies. Currently, many tech firms are designing and testing their own delivery drone solutions, but they are yet to enter mainstream use.

What are the benefits of using warehouse robots?

If you are planning to add warehouse robots to your facility, your company will be able to benefit in a number of clear and tangible and quantifiable ways:

  • Increased warehouse efficiency: Utilising robots in your warehouse enables your workforce to be more efficient, chiefly by removing the need for them to carry out time-consuming, basic tasks. For instance, robots are capable of moving stock to the packing area once it has been picked, ensuring that human workers can move on to the next order quickly.
  • Improved accuracy: When robots are working on tasks like stock counting or adding items to a pallet order, their margin for error is much lower than with a human. With more accurate stock fulfilment, you won’t need to organise as many costly refunds or replacements and your customers will be more satisfied across the board.
  • Higher operational capacity: Warehouse robots are capable of working around the clock and the need for extended breaks (apart from when they need to charge). So, when used alongside your existing workforce, they can increase the operational capacity of your team. This means that you can process more orders in the same time frame, which can be helpful in periods of peak demand.
  • Reduced strain and better safety: Robots can carry out jobs that are repetitive, demanding, or dangerous for your workforce, such as moving stock, lifting heavy loads, or picking from height. Not only does this improve warehouse safety and risk of injury, but it can also make things less stressful for your team. As a result, you can access long term benefits, like better worker morale and reduced sick leave.
  • Reduced need for large storage space: Because warehouse robots can work with accuracy and improved safety, it’s possible to use them for stock picking in more vertical and densely packed spaces that wouldn’t be possible with a team of human workers. This is especially true for automated storage and retrieval systems. As a result, there is less need for costly large warehouses for your stock. Smaller facilities are also more widely available in towns and cities, allowing you to deliver stock closer to demand to reduce costs.
  • Better brand image: Investing in warehouse robotics demonstrates that you’re a forward thinking and innovative brand, not only to your customers, but to your current suppliers and any business that you’re looking to win in the future.
  • Quick return on investment: While there will be an initial upfront cost to purchase and integrate robots into your warehouse, they tend to provide a quick return on investment thanks to reduced labour costs and the greater capacity and efficiency they will provide your operation.

Are warehouse robots right for your company?

Now that we’ve covered the basics of warehouse robotics, you should have a better idea of what they can offer your business. As part of a warehouse automation plan, you can improve the way that your facility operates and begin to access the benefits that robots can offer.

However, it’s not simply a case of purchasing and deploying these solutions in your warehouse. To ensure that any robots can work to their full potential, it’s important that you have the right system in place to support them. There are several key components that are worth investing in to make sure that your robots are as effective as possible, including an effective warehouse control system that can integrate smoothly with your warehouse management system (WMS), in addition to fully compatible enterprise resource planning (ERP) and transport management systems (TMS).

Here at Balloon One, we can offer a flexible and scalable warehouse automation solution that will integrate robotic innovation alongside key productivity tools, so you can get the most out of them. We can provide an assessment to ensure that any solution is adjusted to the needs of your business, as well as ongoing support from our team. We’ve worked with customers from across a whole range of industries, so no matter what sector you’re in, we can help you to achieve your goals.

To find out more about how we can help, please feel free to fill in the contact form below. You can also read our whitepaper Robotics in the Warehouse to find out more.

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