The transformative potential of automation has been brought to the fore over the past two years. This has been a saving grace for many industries like hospitality and healthcare, whose operations have been dramatically disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. And now, as these industries and others continue to struggle with historic labor shortages, automation technology is enabling them to get the job done even when they lack human talent.
Perhaps no industry has more to gain from automation in the near term than the warehousing sector. Over the past decade, excitement has grown around the use of robotics in materials handling in warehousing as people’s understanding of its applications matures.
When people thought of robotics ten years ago, they mostly imagined automotive guided vehicles traveling through warehouses. Some of this belief was directly due to the media attention that Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva Systems received in 2012. But the space has seen a wide range of fundraising activity since that acquisition, and the evolution of Consumers’ online shopping behavior drives the need for better, faster and cheaper handling that robots can unlock.
Now, it’s fair to say that we have finally reached a tipping point for the use of robots in warehouses. Plus, we can confidently say that cracking that nut will have a huge impact on an industry that’s projected to be worth $625 billion by 2030. Here’s why.
Labor shortages increase reliance on automation to meet productivity goals
Today, warehouse workers certainly operate in a unique environment. While the dramatic increase in demand for goods is a sign of an impressive economic rebound from Covid-19, it is unfortunately occurring amid severe supply chain shortages and labor issues that , in turn, create a host of problems such as backorders and a lack of space for inventory.
For this reason, warehouse owners need to find a way to increase productivity with less resources and personnel. After all, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, employee quits in warehousing were a major contributor to a record number of quits toward the end of 2021.
One of the ways they are trying to support employees and meet demand is by deploying more warehouse robots, which have seen a dramatic increase in adoption in recent years. Indeed, managers realize that when they combine the strength, precision and speed of industrial robots with the ingenuity, judgment and dexterity of human workers, they can achieve a much more flexible and productive warehouse.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMR), for example, which can move around their environments with little or no supervision, are used to perform low-skilled tasks like transporting, picking up and dropping off products so that human workers can focus on other tasks that add value to the product or operation. Meanwhile, warehouse managers use stationary robots, which are those bolted to the floor, to perform picking and placing, sorting, and inspecting goods.
In Veo Robotics’ experience, we’ve seen high-to-full or mixed automation approaches easily perform over 200 picks per hour compared to someone working in a traditional low-to-no automation setting only realizing 40 to 60 selections per hour.
However, the way forward is not a fully automated, “lightless” warehouse without line staff. The economy of full automation or an installation that only requires the programming and maintenance of the machine does not make sense. Instead, a workforce led by humans and robots is our future. This means we need to find a way to ensure the two can work side by side in a safe and productive way.
Robots can now safely go cageless in the warehouse
Robots are inherently dangerous, but due to a culture and commitment to safety, industrial accidents involving robots are rare. In fact, if you do the math, with about 250 million vehicles on the road in the United States, you’re about 150 times more likely to be killed by a car than a robot. However, as the use of robots has exploded in warehouses, what needs to be protected is the interaction between humans and their robot peers.
While one way to address this challenge in the past was to use cobots or limited power and force (PFL) robots, this solution comes with other problems. Namely, sacrificing range, speed, and payloads. This brings us to full industrial strength robots that could be used to stack or unstack large pallets in a warehouse. Because they typically weigh thousands of pounds, they have always been isolated from humans in cage work cell environments.
Fortunately, in recent years there have been major breakthroughs with safety sensors and intelligence allowing warehouse managers to break out of caged approaches and outdated techniques such as the use of light curtains. To give an idea of the significance of this, just think how inefficient and expensive it is for a warehouse manager to have to perform maintenance on a caged robot that may be missing picks or experiencing a failure in the construction of mixed pallets. Indeed, the worker must first go through the protection of the robot to correct the defect, then perform a manual restart. This, of course, forces the warehouse to partially shut down operations until it is complete, which ultimately means lost revenue.
Now, new 3D backup methods such as Velocity and Separation Monitoring (SSM), which follows standards set by the International Organization for Standardization, such as ISO 10218-1 and ISO/TS 15066, mean that robots can finally break free from their cages and warehouse workers can stay safe in collaborative robot applications as SSM endows any robot with spatial awareness to avoid people and obstacles around it.
Although the use of SSM is still in its infancy, its promise of knocking robots out of their cages cannot be underestimated. Warehouse operators can reduce their investment in cage work cells and improve the efficiency of their robots and take advantage of the flexibility found on facility floors.
Harness the flexibility of human-robot collaboration to free up needed space
According to some reports, the United States alone will need another billion square feet of warehousing space by 2025 to keep up with the e-commerce boom and the need to position retail items closer to customers for faster delivery. Plus, the price to get the space that already exists today is skyrocketing. The rental price of industrial warehouses is up 25% and vacancy rates are at their lowest since 2002 according to a recent report by the CBRE group.
The result is that every warehouse operator or company renting warehouse space is trying to do more with less. New solutions must be found to increase warehouse storage capacity and find better ways for workers, retail products and robotics to co-exist and be near warehouse facilities. And while some might think near 100% automation would be the secret to maximizing space, full automation actually reduces facility flexibility.
When every warehouse process is automated, everything has to be placed precisely, every part in its place. There is very little room for deviations in parts and process. The assembly must be just so, and any failure to adhere to the rigorous design of the process will trigger an error, a line stoppage and a need for human intervention. Instead, the best way to introduce flexibility and free up space in warehouses is to take full advantage of the two most flexible resources on facility floors simultaneously: humans and robots.
Allowing humans and robots to work together easily and safely in cage-free areas will allow for a much more flexible warehouse floor design. In addition to improving space utilization in cage-free environments, human-robot collaboration can reduce order processing times, strengthen inventory control, improve picking efficiency, and reduce process errors. All of these things mean more product in and out of warehouse doors, which also eliminates the need for more space.
We may never get rid of this great debate about the use of automation in warehouses. But it seems the more we talk about it, the more inherent its potential becomes, as fluctuating market conditions constantly drive the need for more flexible installations. Indeed, warehouse space is at a crucial moment right now. And as external factors continue to create challenges for warehousing workers, a collaboration between humans and machines may provide the best economic solution.