Right Tool, Right Solution

To take full advantage of the dizzying advance in robotics technology, it’s vital to prioritise the best solution over the best tool. Dematic’s Crystal Parrott explains why to Paul Hamblin.

Robots have been case handling in warehouses, palletising and depalletising, for some while now. But as in every branch of logistics, harder questions are being asked of the automation providers. It’s led to technological advancement and an ingenious variety of solutions for the sector.

Case handling is one such area, according to Crystal Parrott, VP at Dematic’s Robotics Center of Excellence in North America. “Changes in distribution methods mean that the robot’s intelligence has to be more advanced. Let’s say you used to do regular palletising, now you’re doing mixed-case, offering different products in a stack. That means your process needs to be capable of handling SKU Pure (in which the same product is picked across the pallet), the Rainbow (different SKU’s sorted by layer) and now Fully Mixed. Intelligent robotics can really help to address those issues.”

The mixed-case pallet has been borne, in part, from the need to save space and time at space-restricted shop premises without comfortable backroom storage facilities. “These customers want the pallet to go straight into the shop aisle for fulfilment,” explains Crystal Parrott. “So, from that basic technology, we have advancements such as advanced pallet generation software, robot motion planners and flexible gripping techniques to enable that mixed planning.” Robotics in those scenarios can also solve ergonomic issues arising from improper manual handling, she adds.

The global mushrooming of online ordering and ecommerce is another flourishing market for automation. “It requires you to handle not at the case level, but the unit level,” she points out. “Advancements in AI, in gripping and vision technology are now enabling providers to fulfil individual order profiles robotically.”

Then you can throw mobility into the mix. “Mobile platforms and mobile robots add the dynamics ensuring that nothing is static. You don’t need specific conveyors or hard automation, you can now use mobile automation to get things from point A to point B. Flexible and modular systems are now coming online to suit customer requirements.”

It’s clear that there are many opportunities to introduce robotics into the warehouse. That breadth of opportunity brings us to the Dematic Center of Robotics Excellence, which exists for a vital purpose – to ensure that automation products are fitted appropriately for customer needs both now and in the future.

“The order fulfilment component within the warehouse is a big area, but you need to make sure it makes sense, to apply the right technology to the application,” Crystal Parrott enlarges. “It’s vital to make sure that the technology fulfils the requirements of the operation.”

Robots do not have all the answers. “The technology is evolving, it’s far from perfect,” she reflects. “A human is far more dextrous when it comes to unexpected situations. Automation works well in a dynamic environment, but it still needs product stability – so an example might be that your boxes need to remain closed – if they then don’t do so when supposed to, you’re going to unwittingly introduce other challenges when you implement the automation. That’s why it’s so important to evaluate the appropriateness of the technology to the solution.”

This is a forensic process which is not as straightforward as it sounds. “You might be surprised at how much a company fails to appreciate that its packaging changes from delivery to delivery or from one 3PL or 4PL supplier to another. There might be, say, a run from one client where they forgot to put the sticky tab on the lid, or the fold pattern wasn’t perforated exactly right. Now, a human might notice that, but it won’t affect their actual ability to handle the goods. Whereas in automation, it might introduce an error or a condition that is not optimal for that technology. So now you need methods to notice and handle those situations, so that the optimal performance of the operational systems is not compromised.”

In a warehouse environment full of multishuttles, conveyors and much else besides, she notes, a customer soon gains an understanding of how such subtle differences affect its products long term and what managers need to be aware of that could become truly critical.

“You don’t want to introduce technology that is only good when it’s perfect. It needs to be able to handle the challenges. If you’re moving standard boxes, that’s great, but if you’re in a sector where seasonal factors are critical, or that week’s hot fashion product is forgotten a week later, it becomes a different type of challenge. It’s got to make sense for the overall operation flow.”

This is where Parrott and her team at the Robotics Center of Excellence come in. “Yes, we have a fantastic R&D and innovation department that is working on the very next-gen technologies, but our mission is to take those latest pieces and implement them successfully within the wider solutions portfolio. We’re looking at the whole process, not just the robot component. We are able to tie in and align the solution from a corporate perspective, with what the software needs to be to support that solution, what the product and modules need to be and what the technology pieces need to be to fit in with that. And requirements are different all over the world – there are varying operational requirement, price points, technical components, so we have to look at a global perspective. We want to provide standard modules that can be integrated into an overall solution. For us, it’s not just about getting the latest technology out there – it has to be migrated into something that’s reliable enough to be ported into the manufacturing environment or logistics space.”

Coming down the track are higher-speed picking solutions and greater capacity for the product to determine when conditions have changed. “As you move through the warehouse, you’re going to have products which are 95% pickable all the time and then those that aren’t, when there is a change of packaging perhaps. You need to be prepared to plan at a larger scale to modify the operations throughout the warehouse, because throughput is where the magic happens. That’s how you get the best solution, versus the best tool.” 

Grocery retailers face an increasing challenging environment with downward pressures on pricing meeting higher costs, notably the living wage. Attracting suitable labour is a problem to be addressed not just by increasing labour productivity, but also by providing a safer and more rewarding working environment. The consumer demands ever more accurate and timely fulfilment through many channels.

If grocery retailers are to accommodate and also capitalise on the changing demands of the market, they will need to think carefully about how supply chain processes can be optimised and attuned more closely to the needs of the grocery market. To do this, grocery retailers will need to account for the subtle shifts occurring in consumer buying behaviour and the pressures placed on retailer logistics activities through rising labour costs and the constraints of rigid property portfolios.

What is clear is that the complex requirements of omni-channel fulfilment, flexible store replenishment, and advanced sequencing techniques will demand the greater use of automated technology for order picking and order assembly activities. Intelligent automated systems applied and optimised in innovative ways will provide the means to meeting these challenges and will create new opportunities.