Warehouse Automation - Robotics, Digital Twinning, and AI on the Rise
Warehousing and distribution are critical parts of the growing global supply chain, and as a means to meet the demands, automation is playing an increasing role in these operations.
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for more robust and efficient operations within warehouses and distribution centers (DCs), as has customer demand within the areas of third-party logistics, e-commerce, and retailing.
To address the challenges brought on by labor shortages, enhance worker safety, and provide optimum efficiency to keep up with consumer demand, businesses across the globe are turning to automation. The hope is that both digital and physical automation can help improve supply chain resiliency.
As the global warehouse automation market grows, so does the need for automated warehouse and DC technology. Image used courtesy of Rockwell
Warehouse Automation Trends
According to Grand View Research, the global e-commerce market size was forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14.7% between 2020 and 2027, reaching a market value of over USD 27 billion. Warehousing and distribution are critical parts of the global supply chain, and as e-commerce grows, more and more businesses are looking towards automation to meet the new demands. As reported by LogisticsIQ, the global warehouse automation market is estimated to reach $41 Billion by 2027, at a compound annual growth rate of 15% between 2022 and 2027.
Digital Twinning to Optimize Logistics
As a means to improve productivity and business mobility, digital twin technology is fast becoming the mainstream with automotive and other tech/equipment manufacturers (such as FANUC America). Businesses are also seeing the potential for the use of digital twinning as a way to optimize logistics.
One use case of using digital twin technology for warehouse operations involves a collaboration between Hardis Group and Schneider Electric. The jointly developed Vision Insights application was used to provide automatic recognition of pallets deposited at loading docks. Vision Insights uses artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to generate a digital twin of pallets in real time. The application alerts operators as to which pallet has been at a docking station for too long so that it may be processed quickly to keep up with customer orders.
Robotics for Fulfillment
As a part of the physical aspect of automation in warehouses and DCs, business are looking towards autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and cobots.
Automating the transport of goods and materials through the employment of AMRs is known to provide several benefits for workers and facility managers, including relieving workload fatigue, increasing worker safety, opening up workers for more specialized tasks, and improving operational efficiency. In today’s warehouses and DCs, mobile robotics is being used for order picking, pallet transport and deposition, and automated machine tending, among other things.
Universal Robots is an example of collaborative robot technology that is aiding in incresead supply chain demand. Video used courtesy of UR
Also providing businesses and workers with the benefits of automation are colloborative robots. Cobots are designed to work safely alongside humans and undertake repetitive, hazardous, complex, and time-consuming tasks. In a case study from Universal Robots (UR), DCL Logistics implemented the use of URs’ UR10e cobot in its fulfillment center for picking and packaging items. DCL Logistics was able to achieve an increase in productivity of 500%. The company also achieved labor savings of 50% and an increase in order accuracy from 99.5 to 100%.
The Symbotic System, As an Example
Late in September, Symbotic Inc. announced its entry into an agreement with United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), a known supplier of well-known grocery stores across Canada and the United States. Under the agreement, UNFI plans to use Symbotic’s A.I.-driven warehouse solution, Symbotic System, in five of its distribution centers across the coming four years.
Claiming to be the "backbone of e-commerce," Symbotic System combines automated hardware and software components to provide an end-to-end solution. The system enables warehouse and DC operators to expedite pick and place, as well as palletizing operations.
Symbotic’s autonomous vehicle, SymBot, is used in picking up and transporting pallets. Image used courtesy of Symbotic
The Symbotic System’s Inbound Cell processes pallets, separating them into small groups of cases to maximize storage capability and enhance accessibility. Each cell can process 1,700 cases every hour. The SymBot autonomous robots then pick up pallets and transport them to bays of varying heights across the storage frame.
This system aims to provide maximum storage capacity both horizontally and vertically. A coordinated system of software and hardware delivers cases to outbound lifts and then to outbound cells. At the outbound cells, cases are intelligently palletized and sorted so that they are stable and packed together at an optimal density.
Automation in Logistics
By increasing efficiency, safety, and filling and ongoing shortage of labor, automation is an appealing solution to businesses as customer demands grow in third-party logistics, e-commerce, and retailing.