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Warehouse robotics: An Introduction

Warehouse robotics has been gaining prominence over the past decade owing to reduced costs of ownership, increased demand for cost-effective & high-throughput warehouses (read more here). Warehouse robotics is an umbrella term used to refer to the usage of robots, automated systems and other complex software systems in tandem with the Warehouse ERP systems (WMS) to automate and streamline warehouse processes.

Warehouse robotics: Types and Use-cases

The growth of e-commerce industry and the 2-day standard delivery becoming the norm for most online retailers, warehouse operators and 3PL companies have been forced to adopt warehouse robotics into their facilities in a bid to cut-costs and just to remain abreast of the competition. Warehouse robots add value by offloading the burden of menial, repetitive tasks from warehouse associates, allowing workers to focus on more important tasks. One often overlooked advantage of warehouse robots is their ability to scale with very little overhead; compared to the cost of scaling a completely manual warehouse. Reduced costs of ownership and flexible leasing options such as Robotics-as-a-service, make warehouse robots abundantly appealing for short & long-term use cases.

Lets have a look at different types of warehouse robots & automation technologies in order to get a better understanding of their ideal use-cases and advantages.

Automated Storage and Retrieval System (AS/RS)

Automated storage and retrieval system
Automated Storage & Retrieval System. Source: conveyco

Automated Storage & Retrieval System is a specific type of warehouse automation technology designed to store, buffer, transport & retrieve material on demand. More often than not these are integrated very closely with a Warehouse Execution System (WES). AS/RS vary greatly, depending on the use case at hand and the size of payloads, they can consist of shuttles, cranes, carousels and other utilities working synchronously to move material across the facility. AS/RS make excellent use of horizontal & vertical real estate of a warehouse. They are used to increase throughput & reduce errors in large warehouses. Due to their inherent complexity and costs associated with installation and maintenance; AS/RS are more often than not used only in large facilities with clearly defined processes and high throughput.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)

Automated guided vehicles
Automated Guided Vehicles

Automated Guided Vehicles or AGVs offer much more flexibility compared to AS/RS for material transport. AGVs navigate by following a series of simple commands guided by magnetic strips, QR codes or wires. Which require extensive and expensive facility updates in order to install and maintain. AGVs are constrained to only follow the paths laid out by the guiding infrastructure, most AGVs have onboard sensors to detect obstacles. Although, they have minimal on-board intelligence, AGVs end up being relatively expensive due to the supporting infrastructure required to make them operational. They are primarily used to replace forklifts or manual pick carts in a warehouse and can perform operations such as goods-to-person picking, sorting and delivery.

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)

Autonomous Mobile Robots
Autonomous Mobile Robots

Autonomous Mobile robots use the latest in sensor technology and robotics perception to navigate autonomously. Unlike AGVs, AMRs do not require infrastructural changes to the facility and use a map of the environment to navigate, avoid obstacles and plan paths. Despite being at the cutting edge of robotics and employing the latest in sensor technology, AMRs are very cost-effective and yield quicker ROI.

AMRs are used in warehouses, manufacturing facilities, hospitals and airports to perform various activities centred around the theme of material transport. They are capable of safely operating alongside humans, this makes AMRs truly collaborative. AMRs can be used to aid warehouse associates in the picking process by guiding them to the next picking location and acting as storage bins for the picked items. They can also be used to perform goods-to-person picking, sorting or replenishment. The AMR only needs simple software adjustments to change its missions, however, so the same robot can perform a variety of different tasks at different locations, automatically making adjustments to meet changing environments and production requirements.

Robotic Arms

Universal Robot Arm
Universal Robot Arm performing picking

Robotic Arms have been used in the manufacturing industry for decades, recently, a new wave of light-weight, cost-effective and highly modular robotic arms have gained popularity in the warehousing industry. Depending on the use case these Robotic Arms could be fitted with sensors for object identification & special purpose grippers to perform efficient sorting. Traditional industrial robotic arms are used for heavy duty purposes such as palletizing, loading/unloading & stacking.

Warehouse robotics: Benefits

Rising consumer demands, growing competition and the need to cut costs has redefined much of the warehousing industry processes and concerns. Now, more than ever, supply chain leaders know that fulfilment is the key to differentiation, and in some cases, survival. Below are the few key benefits of warehouse robotics, for you to consider, in order to make an informed decision.

Improved Accuracy

As alluded to in our previous blog post (link), most warehouses today use manual processes for picking and order fulfilment. This usually leads to unacceptable picking error rates (as high as 10% in some cases), causing customer dissatisfaction and reverse logistics costs compound overtime. Warehouse robots are precision machines with picking accuracy of ~99.7%, careful planning and the right warehouse robotics partner could help warehouses reduce errors across all activities and not just picking.

Scalability

One of the most crucial aspects of any business operation is its ability to scale. Warehouses specifically are driven by market forces, erratic labour markets and consumer behaviour. The ability to correctly predict the upcoming demand, and scale accordingly, could mean the difference between profit or loss. Most warehouses struggle to maintain the right numbers of head count, to fulfill current needs, whilst having access to the local labour pool for future demands. Warehouses are either understaffed and struggle to meet the demands, or are overstaffed with an unhealthy cost-per-order ratio. Robots enable warehouses to scale efficiently with ups and downs of the market tide, to scale up a warehouse leases more robots and to cut-down it reduces its fleet size. Although, this is only possible with warehouse robotics partners who provide flexible leasing options.

High throughput

One of the greatest advantage of automation or robotics is the ability of these machines to do menial, repetitive tasks continuously, 24×7, without fatigue or reduction in throughput, in contrast, most warehouse associates spend 70-75% of their time travelling between tasks (10-15 miles per day), which does not add any net value to the output. AMRs alone can increase the productivity of the workforce in a warehouse by 3x. Warehouse robotics solutions when employed correctly, increase throughput of the warehouse and lead to better space utilization.


The global warehousing market was valued at approx. $245 Billion in 2020, and it is forecasted to grow at a CAGR of 7 percent between 2020 and 2024 to touch the $326 billion mark by the end of 2024. In India, the e-commerce industry is expected to reach from $97 billion in 2020 to $143 billion in 2024. With increasing demands and shortage of skilled labour world-wide, businesses need to rethink and re-evaluate their warehousing strategy moving forward.

Modern warehousing facilities can no longer depend on manual processes alone, especially in today’s tight labor market. Feasible warehouse robotic solutions are becoming a reality, in terms of flexibility, cost-effectiveness, return on investment, and productivity optimization. At some point, all companies must ask themselves: Can we afford not to adopt Warehouse Robotics?

To know more about warehouse robotics, refer to the following whitepaper published by Robotics business review https://www.roboticsbusinessreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/RiseOfTheWarehouseRobots-LogisticsIQ.pdf

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