The future of robotic picking in distribution

Even in the best of circumstances, it’s a challenge to find workers for your DC who can do the job properly for wages within your budget.

DC work can be physically demanding and mentally tedious. Some people take DC jobs because they need the work. But as soon as a better option comes along — one that may not require walking many kilometres per shift — they are likely to quit.

Robots don’t quit. Robots don’t get tired, don’t get sick and don’t get injured.

Robots have been used in manufacturing – especially in the automotive industry for decades – but the features that make robots ideal for that environment — the capacity to perform the same task over and over, handling the same kind of item in the same location — often don’t work in distribution where tasks and item types vary greatly.

A good example of this is that, until now, robotic picking systems have struggled to perform the most common task in most DCs and warehouses: piece picking for discrete orders.

The good news

The good news is that new technology solutions to adapt robots for use in distribution are now available. One such technology – vision systems – uses sophisticated software to allow robots to “see” items — for example to differentiate between upright items and those lying on their sides. By being able to identify item types, robots can be programmed to know what to do with each.

Another technology increasing the versatility of robots in distribution applications is flexible gripping devices that help robots grasp a wide range of items with different levels of dexterity. Most robot gripping devices (also known as end effectors) can grip only a narrow range of items. But piece pickers in DCs need to hold and lift a variety of items with the same hand, from the most delicate crystal glass to the heaviest case of beer. In the recent past, robots required a variety of gripping devices to accommodate different items, and the process to exchange different gripping devices between each pick run was time-consuming. Today the functionality of robot gripping device technology has advanced, and Dematic is developing it further by creating both goods-to-robot and robot-to-goods picking solutions.

Robots suit labour-intensive, repetitive tasks

Dematic robotic solutions can automate the most labour-intensive, repetitive tasks to improve efficiency, accuracy and flexibility.

The good news is that goods-to-robot picking solutions are available today, although they are somewhat limited to DCs that handle a fairly narrow range of product types, dimensions, weights, delicacy and sizes. These solutions include robots that are stationary, which makes them safe, fast and efficient, and able to improve productivity dramatically for a highly-automated operation.

We have solved many of the goods-to-robot picking problems. The next challenge is robot-to- goods picking. Imagine a DC where you have robots working next to your human pickers. The robots are fast, accurate and safe. In areas where it is hard to find and retain reliable staff, robots can take over the physically demanding task of picking, and will do it reliably every single day, all day long.

At Dematic, we are meeting this challenge by leveraging our deep development experience in materials handling automation. Dematic is exploring the latest in multi-axis robot arms, end-of-arm tooling designs, and 2D and 3D vision systems, and we are understanding how to combine them with the safe navigation systems we have already developed for our automated guided vehicles (AGVs), to make robot-to-goods picking a reality.

Robots now and in the future

You can now use robots for the tedious and exhausting tasks in your DC so you can save human labour for work that requires thinking and creativity. It’s time to consider how robots can make your DC more efficient – now and in the future.

By: Pas Tomasiello, Dematic’s Director of Integrated Systems


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