Intelligent, mobile, networked: the next generation of robots is paving the way to the Dark Warehouse

Heusenstamm, 27 April 2020 – The requirements for intralogistic automation are constantly changing. This is driven not only by technological leaps, but also a changing society. In the course of its 200-year company history, Dematic has been the driving force behind many developments: stacker cranes, automated guided vehicles and multishuttle systems. Automation experts also see great potential for the warehouse of the future in robotics. 

In the past, everything had to be strictly structured: robots were machines that performed the same work step over and over again. To do this, the object that they had to work on needed to be in the same place. Most of the time it was identically shaped. For example, robots were able to prepare large orders for transport in a warehouse. But that is no longer sufficient today.

"Businesses have less storage space. Customers order smaller, more individual items," says Crystal Parrott, Global Vice President of Dematic's Robotics Center of Excellence. That’s why demand tends to be more for a mixture of very different articles, rather than large orders of the same product. And they need to be compiled as quickly as possible. "This is a whole new form of complexity," says Parrott. The machine has to grip different objects in a range of positions. It doesn't even know which object will be placed in front of it next.

Many industries face the same issue as the robot

This challenge is symptomatic in several respects. It stems from the rise of the online trade, and it reveals the changed consumer patterns of us all. It is an expression of increased urbanization, which in turn leads to small warehouses close to the customer. Above all, however, a vast number of industries and enterprises are facing the same issue as the picking robot: they don't know what's coming next. "Many customers can't say what business they'll be doing tomorrow," explains Parrott: warehouses are rented at short notice, managers have to adjust to surprising order peaks or to rapidly changing customer requirements. "The warehouse was static for a long time," Parrott explains: "That’s no longer the case. The roles will be the same in the future, but the way they are fulfilled will be modular, depending on space and needs."

All this taken into account describes precisely the requirements for the warehouse of the future: it will be almost entirely automated. Machines and technology will no longer be responsible for monotonous, standardised work steps, but will make their own decisions based on the data they collect and their analytical capabilities. Once they have mastered this, it will mean efficiency, speed – and a warehouse in which people no longer have to physically work, and where the overhead lighting can be switched off or dimmed at least. Hence the term "Dark Warehouse".

An entire industry is researching how to teach machines to retrieve items from a box that all look different, that can be soft or hard, perhaps have a greasy surface, or where the same product might have been in a completely different package the day before because it was an anniversary edition. Technically this is possible with finger grippers or by using a vacuum. But the robots have to become more intelligent. "They need to know exactly where their arm is in relation to the product," says Parrott. “Where do I start? I need eyes for that." In other words: cameras and sensors, which in turn are not sufficient without artificial intelligence that controls and converts what it sees into motion.

Digitization, networking and technology come together

“The engineer of the future must think in increasingly interdisciplinary terms," emphasises Claudia Olsson, founder of Stellar Capacity and Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum. Engineers will have to address topics ranging from synthetic biology and neuroscience to ethical questions when it comes to artificial intelligence. Many of the limitations of robotics are about to dissolve: "There are cobots, cyborgs, and all kinds of variations. Our definition of the robot as a machine made of metal, which performs a limited set of tasks, will broaden significantly."

The warehouse has always been a place where innovation has occured, where social and economic trends have become more concentrated, where time and efficiency play a special role. Although the warehouse is also a place that receives comparatively little public attention. Digitization, breakthroughs in network infrastructure and related technological progress are now coming together here – including the vision that people will in future become the cognitive, leading authority in an otherwise fully automated warehouse. "Logistics is a driver of change, and it also reflects key shifts in our global economy," says Olsson.

The warehouse moves closer to the customer

Robotics expert Crystal Parrott from Dematic is convinced that robotics is the key to numerous challenges. The few remaining automation gaps will soon be closed. "Consistent automation is useful both for large customers with large storage areas and for local retailers." The so-called "last mile", i.e. the area in the inner cities, the direct contact to the end customer, be it in the shop or at the front door, is also an exciting field for Dematic in many respects. Among other things, it is actively processed by innovative pilot projects such as the PackMyRide system, which in a fully automatic manner can process parcels of a wide range of sizes, arrange them in the desired sequence and sort them into a loading rack, which is then automatically transported into the truck by AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles). This has only become recently possible and saves time, among other things: the parcel deliverers no longer have to sort and load manually, but can concentrate on their core task – delivery.

"No customer wants to wait another two weeks. That's why the warehouse has to be closer to the customer," says Parrott. "The closer we get to the customer, the cheaper the last mile will be." Micro-fulfilment is the keyword here, and Dematic already has solutions for this: systems with an extremely compact design that can assemble orders fully automatically within an hour and that can fit the back of a retail store, for example. At some point robots will also help with storing and retrieval for shop shelves. Society is already experimenting with automated vehicles or drones that deliver goods to customers.

Software and material flow become a competitive advantage

Which brings another requirement for the robot of the future into focus: its movement. It won't be confined to one place any more. For a long time, AGVs were an initial solution in this direction. However, they had to be directed and instructed. In the future they will be supplemented by autonomous mobile robots (AMR), which search their way independently and do not simply stop at an obstacle, but drive around it cleverly. "But a moving robot on its own is of no use," Parrott says: "The best thing is to combine both: perhaps the robot can grab and sort its products while both are on the move optimizing pick rates and product flow?" The consequence would be to completely rethink the interior design of warehouses. For example, because the robot not only moves to the rack, but also brings the rack directly with it. "Current technological developments offer the opportunity to plan the entire merchandise process differently," says Parrott. Everything becomes modular, everything becomes mobile.

In the future, technology and mechatronics will be the raw materials, but software and efficient planning will be the competitive advantage. "Dematic wants to remain the market leader in this area, and we need to concentrate on this," Parrott emphasises: "Our stated goal is to automate all functions in warehouse logistics operations that can be performed with robotics and managed by people." In the future, the main focus will be on adapting applications flexibly to each customer. The unloading of goods and order processing are still a challenge for the entire automation industry. But Parrott is also confident in this respect.

The future is closer than we think

The global introduction of the 5G standard and the adoption of cloud computing will unlock further opportunities for innovation. With 5G increasing amounts of data can be transferred even faster. "If the vehicles and devices in the Dark Warehouse are to communicate with each other, they need to do so as continuously as possible," Parrott explains. 5G will enable the corresponding amounts of data to be processed. Only by means of the Cloud Artificial Intelligences can be networked with one another. AGVs and AMR, for example, then can coordinate with each other and also exchange their data – with the rack, the human employees and the products themselves. In future, a larger bandwidth will also allow virtual simulation of machines, so-called "digital twins", which can then be operated and maintained remotely without anyone having to enter the warehouse - up to and including simulation of the entire warehouse and its goods flows. This opens up completely new areas for planning and analysis. Everything can be controlled as a networked system.

"Currently, we often still think in terms of individual machines," says technology expert Olsson, predicting a fundamental paradigm shift: "In the future, these machines will work together to create a large, integrated machine." That's the Dark Warehouse. The warehouse may also be used to supply materials for very individual, tailor-made customer requirements, which are realised just-in-time in production or in the 3D printer. "The great thing about technology is that it's constantly changing," Parrott emphasises. " In five years’ time, everything may well be different." Much of what is currently on the drawing board is not so far from being implemented: "The next generation of robots is coming. And probably faster than you think."

 

About Dematic

Dematic is an intralogistics innovator that designs, builds and supports intelligent, automated solutions for manufacturing, warehouse and distribution environments for customers that are powering the future of commerce. With engineering centers, manufacturing facilities and service centers located in more than 25 countries, Dematic’s global network of 8,000 employees have helped achieve more than 6,000 worldwide customer installations for some of the world’s leading brands. Headquartered in Atlanta, Dematic is a member of KION Group, a global leader in industrial trucks, supply chain solutions and related services, and a leading provider of warehouse automation.

 

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