From unmanned aerial vehicles and driverless forklifts to mobile robots, there are several machines on the market that can now move about the warehouse without human control.
Most warehouse managers are looking to these machines to reduce waste and human movement, Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics told Supply Chain Dive. According to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the average warehouse worker wastes nearly seven weeks per year in unnecessary motion, accounting for more than $4.3 billion in labor.
But the benefits extend well beyond labor savings. "Mobile robotics can also reduce your workers’ compensation and your safety issues within a facility by separating human traffic from large vehicle traffic," Wise said.
As these machines become increasingly effective, they’re also becoming more affordable and flexible with the ability to be adopted and scaled in virtually any warehouse environment. "The technology has improved dramatically in the last decade. Costs are coming down and allowing everyone to participate in the development and advancement of automation as a whole," Chris Morgan, director of research & development at Bastian Solutions, told Supply Chain Dive.
To date, there are at least four types of driverless vehicles that are bringing new levels of efficiency and automation to the warehouse.
Goods-to-person picking robots
Autonomous inventory robots
Unmanned aerial vehicles
While many logistics and manufacturing operations still rely on manual and paper-based picking systems, autonomous mobile robots can now eliminate a lot of unnecessary walking.
Improvements in sensors, artificial intelligence and mobility enable these machines to be easily deployed virtually anywhere. Companies such as IAM Robotics, GreyOrange and Bleum offer mobile robotic picking solutions that can add a new level of efficiency to the process.
These machines typically carry carts and can be programed to travel flexible routes in the warehouse to move product between workers and stations. “You have to walk some distance to the picking area, find the good that you want and then walk some distance back. It’s really about eliminating walking as that typically represents half the time of the picking task.,” Wise said.
Improvements in the technology and in sensing is enabling rapid and easy deployment. Fetch’s line of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) have no infrastructure requirements and can be deployed in a facility in as little as eight hours, Wise said. A simple computer interface enables anyone with basic computer skills to program and manage the robot.
"A warehouse manager can go in and change whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it," Wise said. "It’s very flexible and can help [managers] deal with fluctuation and change very rapidly. It’s why we call it on-demand automation."
Forklifts are also becoming increasingly complex and intelligent with full autonomy for some applications. They are well-suited for operations whose load-handling processes provide little added value, are repetitive and involve longer distances, said Tobias Zierhurt, vice president of product management and industrial warehouse trucks at Linde Material Handling.
Linde’s automated forklifts feature a navigation laser, front and rear scanners, a 3D camera and visual and acoustic warning indicators that enable it to safely move around a warehouse in the vicinity of human workers. The company claims it can detect obstacles in real time and adjust the course when needed. Many of Lind’s machines are being used to transport pallets and trailers in warehouses at distances up to several hundred meters. These automated trucks operate in fleets from just a few to 30 and are usually used together with manually-operated trucks for certain duties.
In May, ZF Freidrichshafen also launched a new driverless forklift that it says can "see, think, and act." The ZF Innovator Forklift taps into the technology used in its passenger card and commercial vehicles division to create a forklift that has automated driving systems with a camera and radar system to analyze the surrounding environment.
The platform-based logistics solution enables the forklift to know where goods are and when they are arriving. It can then calculate the loading process, seek the optimal route, assign tasks to itself, collaborate with other forklifts, and send confirmation of placement and movement to the ERP system, the company claims. The ZF Innovator Forklift also has automated battery management and can return itself to a charging dock.
Warehouse managers can get the most out of automated forklifts when using them for two-shift operations and to optimize their operational resources, Zierhurt said.
Autonomous mobile robots also offer new opportunities for inventory monitoring. When combined with RFID-tagged products and equipment, these machines can now conduct their own inventory sweeps autonomously at schedules determined by the warehouse.
"People might typically do inventory counts every three months, but they can now do it every two hours with real-time data to make better storage and layout decisions about their facility," Wise said.
Fetch’s TagSurveyor features three RFID interrogators mounted for optimal coverage and can reliably and consistently detect tagged products from up to 25 feet away, says the company. It not only reduces the need for manual inventory counts, but also offers real-time mapping to managers can easily visualize product storage. For example, the robot might identify storage and placement that is leading to inefficient movements of machinery or people. In another case, it may better identify goods that are nearing expiration dates.
While an RFID robot sells for approximately $50,000, the typical customer saves up to a million per year in labor reduction, waste reduction and inventory optimization. "We can start giving customers those insights about how to lay out their facility or identify problems and challenges," Wise said.
It may still be a while before drones are safely moving large products through the air in distribution centers or to customers’ homes. But in the meantime, lightweight unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) are already being equipped with RFID-scanning technology to offer real-time inventory visibility in the warehouse.
PINC makes an autonomous, customizable unmanned aircraft system (UAS) that can be deployed outside of regular working hours. PINC AIR (Aerial inventory robots) can be ordered by operators to perform automatic inventory checks throughout a facility and identify inventory in put-away locations. Resulting scans are uploaded to the cloud in an web application that can synchronize with the WMS or other inventory management systems.
Sensors and algorithms enable collision prevention and an intuitive design that enables it to adopt flight patterns to unique layouts and to navigate cluttered environments, according to the company.
"I think that drones are phenomenal. Using them in the warehouse environment is pure genius. Scanning, inventory checks, safety report, tracking and mapping are all very applicable and much needed," Morgan said.