By: Pas Tomasiello, Senior Director Integrated Systems Group ANZ, Dematic
Robots are not new to supply chain, with robotics already widely used to store, retrieve and transport cartons and pallets.
But it seems we are entering a new era with full automation of the most complicated and labour-intensive task in the warehouse – piece picking – for which robotics have seen very limited use so far.
With advances in technology and rising operational costs, the time has come to seriously consider piece picking robotics within the warehouse. Piece picking robotics increase efficiency and accuracy within the warehouse and will help supply chain businesses be better positioned when it comes to implementing robotic advances in the future.
What is driving the shift to robotic piece picking
Three key factors are impacting the need for new robotic solutions in the warehouse: e-commerce growth, rising consumer expectations and labour availability and accuracy.
The growth of e-commerce is changing distribution centres (DCs) and having a profound effect on customer expectations. Customers expect faster and more convenient delivery, and the supply chain is having to keep up with this as the e-commerce industry continues to get more competitive.
The number of SKUs in e-commerce is on an unprecedented scale with thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of SKUs stored and picked in the warehouse. And the number will continue to grow as customers expect more products to be available to them. Considering the difference in shape, size, weight and other characteristics of the SKUs, it can be very labour-intensive piece picking for workers.
This leads us to the third factor that is driving the need for supply chain businesses to invest in robotic picking: the availability of warehouse labour. There are not enough people to work in DCs to allow businesses to fulfil the sheer volume of orders they have to manage each day. This comes back to factors such as high employee turnover within warehouses, which limits long-term productivity due to time spent training new staff, as well as the labour-intensive, repetitive and sometimes uncomfortable environment nature of piece picking, which all make finding a high enough volume of quality workers in DCs a challenge. That’s where robots, and especially picking robots, usually come into the conversation.
Facing the challenge of robotics in warehouses
There are a number of challenges with implementing robotics in warehouses, such as unstructured environments, an increasingly large range of SKUs, unpredictable product throughput and peak and off-peak seasonality. To overcome these challenges, robots need to be far more flexible than they are in manufacturing environments.
Robots in manufacturing environments perform the same operation almost every time on components that are fixtured or constrained. Software allows new patterns of painting, welding and palletising. However, the new patterns occur in the same envelope and are not significantly different from the previous ones. Furthermore, the motions are generally repeated again and again and again. The challenge is to make it possible for robots to perform actions differently than they could before and to do it cost effectively. And do it all at high speed with even higher accuracy.
Most picking robots today are using technologies to address the random positions of products. They may pick and place a range of individual items, but the items all fit a general profile that is easy to identify and grasp; primarily boxes, mailers, pill bottles and other common configurations.
The future of picking robots, however, is in handling thousands of disparate items that come in a wide range of sizes and weights. To make this even more challenging, the robot may not know in advance what the next item is and has to adapt as it goes.
The wide range of items today’s robots can now successfully pick has finally created the ideal goods-to-robot solution for a number of industries, including e-commerce, apparel, grocery, pharmaceutical, consumer electronics, and general merchandise.
Robotic piece picking technology is evolving at a rapid pace, and beyond reviewing the technical aspects of the various components, you also need to consider the flexibility, scalability, and modularity of a completely integrated system that is right for your facility.
What businesses need to do to ensure successful implementation
Robotics are quickly making inroads in the logistics industry, but for supply chain to ensure successful implementation, there are a number of considerations.
Ensuring workplace readiness will be crucial and will involve making sure your DC management and supervisory staff have the skills to manage the robotic piece picking system.
Finding the right solution for your operation in the first place will make the implementation smoother, but also help with achieving your long-term business goals. You want a solution that is flexible and has the scalability to grow in the future. Picking robots are available today and improving constantly. That means you should evaluate your operation and identify high volume items that lend themselves to the current robot solutions and implement it. From that you will continue to learn, expand and upgrade as the technology advances.
The old formula for product selection was “pick two out of these three: good, fast, or cheap.” Today’s market forces are driving warehouses to demand all three.
Fortunately, new robotic solutions are making that possible. The industry is in the early-adopter stage of harnessing all the capabilities that make warehouse operations more accurate, quick, and affordable.
While there is no instant one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to transforming a warehouse into a lights-out facility, technology currently available can help implement an effective goods-to-robot picking solution and position the warehouse for future advancements. Businesses that take a wait-and-see approach may lose their competitive advantage as time and technology move forward.
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