The Fourth Industrial Revolution has started, warehouse robotics is raging in the logistics arena. Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva, the company regarded by many as being the first to introduce warehouse robotics, left a void that is continually being filled by new, exciting, and emerging technologies.

The distribution industry has become more accepting of this technological advent. The subsequent drops in costs due to competition having witnessed Amazon’s success, along with improvements, and the increasing ease with which savings can be captured have helped the industry further embrace warehouse robotics.

Customer expectations are changing as new sales outlets have emerged from the applications of social media, omnichannel, and eCommerce. Customers now have more price options, selection, delivery methods, and shopping experiences. The ability of a business to meet these expectations greatly depends on its fulfillment capabilities. Progressive businesses have come to realize the critical nature that an operational strategy has on designing a working supply chain.

Inherent to distribution operations are applications where robotics has become an ideal solution. Although, eliminating walk and travel time are still key components in evaluating automated solutions, they are not necessarily the driving criteria. Today’s Distribution Centers (DC) and Fulfillment Centers (FC) need to add flexibility, scalability, and reduce reliance on temporary labor, to meet operational requirements. Material transport, order fulfillment, picking, and sortation offer great opportunity for technologies such as Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR).

AMR are robots that can move independently, by navigating using sensors and cameras, not on a fixed path as Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) do. AMR perceive and analyze their environment (of which they have a given or built in model), find their position within that environment, plan, and execute their movement. In a warehouse, AMR are typically used to move or manipulate product.

Robots have been around for many years, until recently, they have been very limited in capability, functionality, and performance in the world of DC/FC. Today, there are many types of robots available to help with DC/FC operation tasks. These robots can assist with loading, unloading, sorting, picking, transportation, storage, delivery, and audits. Robots helping with these tasks come in all shapes and sizes. They also use different forms of navigation tools such as rail, wire guided, labels, magnetic tape, laser, vision, natural, and geo-guidance. This article focuses on the top six robotic technologies that Tompkins International has identified as the most promising for distribution and fulfillment operations. 

Picking Applications – Goods-to-Man

Anyone who has gone to a material handling trade show or reads industry journals is aware of goods-to-picker systems that have evolved over the past decade. Following the effective introduction of autonomous robotic solutions such as Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva) other solutions are being developed to effectively compete in this space. Two are Grenzebach’s Carry and Swisslog’s CarryPick.

Carry, can be thought of as a Kiva clone that works well in a Goods-to-Man picking application. This is a system where the robots are coordinated by software to move shelving to workstations. The bots move the shelves up to 1,300 lbs., at a speed of 1 m/s. and can move at 1.5 m/s unloaded.

The proven success of the Goods-to-Man approach to picking and the picking process’s inherent place in the distribution arena leave Grenzebach’s G-Com a place in the future of warehouse automation.

CarryPick, is a system that carries shelving bays to the pickers at a workstation. Based in Switzerland, the developer Swisslog, offers the CarryPick Mobile System and is similar to the Grenzebach solution. CarryPick is flexible and scalable, and is applicable in eCommerce businesses where product variability, delivery time, and cost efficiency are critical.

In addition to the robots that carry the shelving the Swisslog solution includes a pick/put-to-light system at the pick station. This helps to ensure the right amount of product is removed and placed in the correct shipping container. Additionally, Swisslog boasts that a 12-week integration time frame.

A significant benefit of these Goods-to-Man systems is that they can be adapted to many existing buildings. Low ceilings, poor lighting, and inadequate HVAC issues often are not hindrances.

Picking Applications – Collaborative Picker Aids

Another trend in robotic picking application is autonomous robots that aid pickers by bringing the pick to container to the product and pickers. These technologies somewhat mimic worker bees (the robots) servicing the queen bee (the picker) by always ensuring the picker has tasks readily available to them with minimal travel. 

Locus Robotics is one such solution. They have engineered a new approach to eCommerce fulfillment operations using AMR called LocusBots™. These robots work safely alongside human employees to deliver consistently higher eCommerce fulfillment throughput and efficiency. LocusBots’ approach can be thought of as a Task-to-Man approach, as opposed to Goods-to-Man.

LocusBots’ user-friendly, touch pad-based UI makes worker training as simple as pick, touch, and go. It automatically detects a wide range of workers’ languages, changing instantly as it interacts with each worker to help speed workflow and minimize errors. The integrated scanner confirms the item and ensures near 100% accurate pick and put operations. 

LocusBots ease of use and application in ever growing eCommerce fulfillment operations, makes it an ideal candidate for future growth.

The 6 River system’s robot, Chuck, is similar to LocusBots. It reduces walking by using a zone picking strategy, which leads the associate through the zone and displays important task information ahead of time. Chuck makes it faster for associates to find the correct location, item, and quantity for the task. As associates complete jobs on one Chuck, the next Chuck is already in position and ready to tag in, keeping associates on task. The brains of the system reside in their Collaborative Fulfillment Systems (CFS), a cloud-based server that coordinates all the work on the floor to maximize utilization and efficiency.

Chuck can carry a maximum payload of 160 lbs., work two shifts on a single charge, and function on all types of warehouse floors, including rack-supported mezzanine. These robots can be used in put-away, picking, counting, and sorting, yielding two to three times the productivity of cart picking. Added advantages include fast training, no need to add infrastructure, 12 to 18 month paybacks, and Go-Lives of four to six weeks.

Furthermore, sensors and software allow Chuck to track data and give feedback to workers, for example celebrating the moment they achieve a personal best or alerting them to areas for improvements. Chuck enables warehouse operators, in real time, to make staffing decisions and understand how their warehouse is operating.

Opportunity to increase picking productivity is being further enhanced by the rapid advances that are occurring in robotic arm and end effector technology. RightHand Robotics (RHR) is a pioneer in piece picking robotics, a challenging component of eCommerce distribution operations.

RHR's RightPick is a robotic arm whose core competency is picking individual items that demand more attention than traditional warehouse case or pallet quantities. RightPick can be used to sort batch-picked items, pick items from AS/RS, induct items to a unit sorter, and order quality assurance. Costs are reduced, and reliability improved with RightPick's application in the pharmaceuticals, electronics, grocery, and apparel industries.

The robotic hand is built out with a combination of a suction mechanism and grippers, enabling it to select and grasp material in different types and sizes of packaging. RightPick handles thousands of different items using a machine learning backend coupled with a sensorized robot hand that works in concert with all industry-leading robotic arms. RightPick is simple to integrate and adaptable to improve the utilization of many different workflows.

Sortation Applications

In the U.S. sortation robotic applications are limited. Currently, the most promising sortation technology in the U.S. is t-Sort. t-Sort is an innovative AMR material handling system that has applications for both unit and parcel sortation. Tompkins Robotics, a division of Tompkins International, joined forces with Lab Z, to create t-Sort. t-Sort is unique in that it employs completely independent robots to sort. It performs much like a tilt tray or cross-belt sorter. This is the equivalent of having a tilt tray with no track. 

t-Sort is 15” wide, taking up a minimal amount of space and can move in any direction. The robots are easy to program and recharge automatically by returning to a charging station as needed. You can think of them as a tilt tray sorter with no rail. t-Sort can go to any divert and induction station autonomously along the shortest path. 

The t-Sort design enables a tremendous reduction in capital cost and space in the DC/FC, compared to traditional automated sortation systems. Robots, chutes, and induction stations can be added modularly at any time with no interruption to operations. Additionally, robots can be added for peak seasons and be taken out of service when not needed.

t-Sort has a bright future as a means of automated order fulfillment and parcel-sorting operations. The system has unheard of flexibility compared to the systems in use today, and it is truly a game changer. It allows for better planning, implementation, controls efficiency, flow of goods and customer service. 

Conclusion

The benefits provided by robots in distribution operations and fulfillment operations directly affect the performance of a supply chain, which is very sensitive to market and sourcing changes, acquisitions, new product, new sales channels, and growth. Businesses that use robotic technology can develop and maintain a competitive advantage. An effective profit-producing supply chain is an ongoing process that must change with the times. The sorting and picking technologies described above increase efficiency in these value-added activities. The traditional warehouse activities of walking and multiple transfers of the product by personnel do not add value. Fortunately, the aforementioned robotic technologies have been introduced to address this issue.

Each application needs to be carefully considered and designed to work with the rest of the material handling automation system. In addition to carefully evaluating the engineering requirements of the sortation and pick systems, the overall business requirements for each situation needs to be considered, including capital expense, future maintenance costs, and future growth requirements. Robots are more affordable than ever as labor costs rise continually. Some of the largest DC/FC in the U.S. have plans to nearly automate every physical move in the DC/FC within the next two to three years.

Linking together robotic applications enables the industry to reduce non-value added activities. For example, an operation can use LocusBots to aid in batch picking, induct with RightPick, and sort parcels and items using t-Sort, eliminating all operator interaction between the putaway and the final pack out. Supply chains must embrace this Fourth Industrial Revolution.

About the Author
Tompkins International Staff
Tompkins International Staff