Warehouse Robots: A Guide to Automating Warehouse Management

11 October 2021
Warehouse robotics and automation
Catherine Bernier
Content Manager
,
Content for Cobot

Warehouse robots are the backbone, and the future, of warehouse management. This guide will walk you through the steps for automating your warehouse.

"By 2025, over 4 million commercial robots will be installed in over 50,000 warehouses, up from just under 4,000 robotic warehouses in 2018". - ABI Research

Warehouse robots are smart machines that enable automation of the movement of inventory around warehouses. Using minimal human assistance, they are creating better workflows.

The early automation in warehouses focused on moving heavy objects in a restricted environment.

In the last decades though, innovation has exploded in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things. This led companies to start to design “smart warehouses”.

Let's explore the role of warehouse robots in various industries. Their advantages, when to automate, and the technicalities of these robots.

In this article:

Industries for Warehouse Robots

Warehouse-robots-industry

 

Warehouse robots have a strong presence across industries, driven by their adoption by small and medium-sized enterprises. 

E-Commerce Industry

One of the early pioneers of warehouse robots for e-commerce was Kiva Systems.  Amazon used their automated guided vehicles and later bought the company. Robots can pick up entire shelves of products and deliver them to packing stations in different areas of a warehouse. They've sensors and algorithms that prevent collisions and determine in-demand products and the closest supply. All this results in increasing speed, efficiency, and accuracy in the picking and packing of e-commerce orders.

Automotive Industry

The automotive industry was the earliest sector to embrace robots in their production floors. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are often used in automotive factories to move raw materials and other parts from storage areas to the factory floor.

Pharmaceutical Industry

Pharmaceutical companies aim for high productivity and accuracy in their manufacturing processes. Autonomous mobile robots, by 'robotizing' their internal material transportation in an efficient and cost-effective manner, are a perfect fit for the pharma industry. The AMRs are easy to program and collaborate with. They're equipped with sensors and cameras that can identify and take the ideal route to their landing spots, circumventing any obstacles. Modern AMRs are also collaborative, enabling human workers to work beside them. 

Apart from the above sectors, warehouse robots are also deployed in electrical and electronics factories, metals and machinery, and even textiles industries.

So why do industries deploy robots in warehouses? Let's take a look at the benefits these intelligent devices offer to industries.

Benefits of Automating the Warehouse

Robots were once expensive and complex machines.  However, with technological advancements, big corporations and small and medium businesses alike have been able to afford robots in their warehouses, accruing several benefits:

Cost Reduction

The most obvious benefit of automation is the drastic reduction in operating costs.  Deploying warehouse robots diminishes the need for human workers by a significant rate. They can be set up to operate according to the demand in the market. And they run all day (and night) without much maintenance and extra costs. 

Better Efficiency with Accuracy

Warehouse robots are perfect for inventory control, identifying products, and the best routes to take from one spot to the destination, with high precision. This becomes advantageous to companies as they can also reallocate their staff to handle other products unsuitable for automation, hence increasing productivity.

Space Optimization

Physical limitations of space have always been a challenge in storing inventory. Warehouse robots have resolved this problem. Since robots don't need wide passages to move around unlike human workers and vehicles, more space frees up as an extra storage area.

Environmentally Sustainable

Utilizing warehouse robots in place of human workers brings down waste and energy consumption. Robots help reduce wastage and energy usage by efficient handling and movement without human intervention.

Convinced that you need to install warehouse robots in your factory? Following are some more factors to consider if it's the right time to automate your warehouse with robots.

When to Automate With a Warehouse Robot?

automate-warehouse

 

Despite all the benefits of deploying a robot in your warehouse, you should take into account your unique manufacturing processes and specific challenges before committing to robotic automation.

Our suggestions:

  • Map out your warehouse to analyze the biggest potential for robotic automation in your business. This potential finder tool can help pick out the most promising projects and their business impacts.
     
  • If you have a low production volume, installing robots in your warehouse with considerable upfront and ongoing costs may or may not benefit your business (see the last section on estimating automation costs). 

It’s a good idea to talk to independent advisors who can assist you to understand the feasibility of a robot for your warehouse and selecting the appropriate solution.

Once you do this, you can then search for offers from multiple robot suppliers

Robot Types Used for Warehouses

Various warehouse robots offer diverse functionality. This allows you to choose and put in place a robotics solution perfect for your operational needs and processes. 

Robotic Storage and Retrieval Systems 

AS-RS with picking station

 

Robotic storage and retrieval systems buffer, fetch items for shipment and return products to their correct storage place, thus automating the inventory process. Such systems include a robotic arm to handle bins or boxes and cranes, shuttles, vertical lift modules, and unit-loads to move around the shelving. And all those systems are often unified with warehouse management software.

Goods-to-Person Technology 

good-to-person

Good-to-person technologies bring the products to a station for an operator.

Goods-to-Person Technology is ideal for higher volumes where the items are smaller. G2P Technology-driven robots deliver units to stationary picking stations for operators to fulfill orders.
 

Automated Guided Vehicles 

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) move on special tracks positioned in planned travel paths to carry inventory from one location to another in the warehouse. They are equipped with camera visions and sensors enabling them to detect obstacles and stop until their way is cleared. They have the form of a forklift or simply a shuttle carrying stock on its back or in a trolley.

Autonomous Mobile Robots 

While Autonomous Mobile Robots also transport material independently, they depend on maps and sensors to understand the territory and help them create flexible routes.  Unlike AGVs, they can recalculate alternative paths when there is an obstacle in their way. They can also work in close collaboration with human employees in a shared space, enhancing productivity.

Articulated Robotic Arms 

Articulated Robotic Arms are artificial limbs with many joints to move and lift products in warehouses. These robotic arms are mostly installed on production floors for packing and shipping items. They come in several versions including SCARA, 6-axis, and cobots, and differ in cycle times, costs, and payload capacities. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles 

UAVs or drones are playing a central role in warehouse automation. These robots have three application areas-inventory management, inspection and surveillance, and indoor intra-logistics.

Finally, as you start planning to automate your warehouse with robots and software, there are some additional considerations that'll help you get the best out of robotic automation.

Additional Considerations

Extra Equipment Needed to Complete the Automation

As you are looking at a specific warehouse robot, you need to not only assess the direct application but what it implies before and after the operation. 

Do you need extra handling systems to load the AGV? Do you need to redesign your storage layout for this technology? This is why we recommend reaching out to an automation expert to make sure you don’t forget any element for successful integration.

Equipment Maintenance

Like any machine, a robot undergoes wear and tear with usage. Periodic maintenance and repairs should factor in the automation planning stage. Follow best practices recommended by the robot manufacturer and technicians should be trained in implementing them.

Smart Warehouse Management

Robotics may be an important component of a smart warehouse but there are more systems and platforms. All these combine to develop the optimum movement of products from storage to shipment. For this, all systems and components should complement and work with the different platforms, software, and other warehousing functionalities.

Estimating Automation Costs

While warehouse robots offer a great return of investment in the future, there are upfront costs in buying and deploying them. You'll need to understand the type and number of robots required, the complexity of the controls and software needed to manage the robots, and the costs and savings to estimate the capital expenditure and ROI for the project. 

With the large potential scale of warehouse automation, you may need to consider a higher price point than a local robotic cell. The value of choosing more advanced technology can also help to reduce the complexity of automation. As an example, technologies like AMRs have a lot of onboard features that remove the need to install external sensors or references. Simply deploy this robot, teach it the map of the warehouse and you can start to benefit from it.

It's also good practice to check with several robots and automation suppliers. And if you're looking for components or maintenance services for your existing robots, you should request quotes from robot suppliers.

This article and the comprehensive guide on industrial robots will help you in choosing the right kind of robot for your warehouse. One that improves your productivity, increases quality, reduces costs, and helps your company succeed.