Supply Chain Commentary: Picking a Robot for Your Warehouse

Tags: Warehousing, Technology , Fulfillment

Mary Ellen Sparrow, Co-founder & CEO, NextShift Robotics

Robots are here to stay. They are the next wave in automating operations in manufacturing and distribution centers. There are a range of robot-based solutions, and as new entrants come into the market, representing different technologies, workflow efficiencies, and ROI gains, it is crucial to pick a system that will remain lean and flexible over time.

Industry 4.0, the trend toward smart factories, will touch all aspects of the supply chain, and you should plan your mobile robotic system accordingly.

Consider these factors when assessing mobile robotic solutions for your operations.

Flexibility Is the New Game Changer

Warehouse robotic systems should not require months to install and integrate, nor necessitate a complete teardown of existing racking. New mobile robotic technologies do not lock warehouse operations into fixed processes and physical layouts. Look for a robotic system that allows flexibility as the business evolves.

Smart Worker-Robot Collaboration

If your business is growing and order fulfillment is a bottleneck, you can benefit from researching collaborative mobile robotic solutions. Automating your warehouse improves efficiency, boosts output, reduces worker fatigue, and lifts morale.

A robotic system is ideal for operations that include repetitive tasks, heavy lifting, or lots of walking. As you consider the best solution for your needs, keep in mind:

  • Safety: Each warehouse environment is different. You should vet any robotic system to make sure its design lets it coexist intelligently with your team.
  • Ease of use is important to explore before committing to a specific solution. It should only take a few days for your staff to get up to speed on your new hardware and software. Look for built-in system intelligence to minimize, or eliminate, the need for complex skills development and in-depth training for your workers.
  • Navigation and obstacle avoidance: Autonomous Unmanned Guided Vehicles (A-UGVs) eschew buried wires or tape on the floor in favor of LIDARs, inertial measurement sensors, and vision systems, combining data from multiple sensors to get a complete understanding of the surrounding environment. Smart navigation keeps your robotic fleet safely out of conflict with human staff. Look for features like auto-avoidance of obstacles and slowing down when backing up.

Maximizing Throughput Gains

Augmenting warehouse staff with a robotic solution is the most powerful step you can take to keep up with accelerating demand and create a competitive edge. All robotic systems will give you better throughput over manual picking. Today’s advanced systems record analytics on the robot and workers to optimize operations, maximizing the benefits of automation.

When the Going Gets Tough, Robots Get Rugged

Fulfillment centers are challenging physical environments, with a wide range of temperatures and humidity. Floors may be rough, uneven, and cluttered with debris and obstacles (wooden pallets, cardboard boxes, plastic wrap...). Warehouse robotic systems can handle multiple floor types (cement, steel grating, and mesh), uneven lighting, and varying temperatures. Less rugged models can require a lot of prep and maintenance work.

Worker-Robot Collaboration Is the Answer

The emerging generation of materials handling systems using A-UGVs is the culmination of years of work in warehousing and logistics optimization. Look at the different possibilities for worker-robot collaboration. There are several routes to an optimized picking workflow. How do you get maximum efficiency, throughput, and flexibility?

  1. The latest A-UGVs do not lock the picker and the robot together. Key benefit: The human worker can rest while your robot keeps going.
  2. A-UGVs create a healthier work environment. A-UGVs can reduce strain on the human labor team, improving worker productivity and job satisfaction.
  3. A mobile robotic fleet should require minimal infrastructure changes. You want easy integration into existing distribution centers, and a system that makes upgrading affordable and efficient.

Autonomous robots that collaborate with workers create a new, uniquely smart and flexible workflow, delivering dramatic ROI, leaner fulfillment operations, and excellent worker satisfaction and retention.






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