Automation and Robotics Go Arm in Arm
Today’s robotics innovators arm warehouses and fulfillment centers with flexible and scalable automation solutions that are within reach for any company.
When a Delaware Macy’s department store with years left on its lease closed because of poor performance, managers knew they had an opportunity, not a failure. Doors were permanently locked to customers on Friday. On Monday, the same associates who smiled as they handed customers their purchases the previous week were acting as shoppers themselves, picking e-commerce orders from floor displays.
It was a temporary step in the facility’s dramatic transformation into a "dark store," a brick-and-mortar location that has been turned into a micro-fulfillment center. Robotics are important to the operation.
"We started by tearing up the carpet, tile, counters, and fitting rooms, and turning the space into an empty shell," says John Seidl, a partner with robotics and software firm GreyOrange.
When finished, the former store leveraged the labor and efficiency benefits of his company’s goods-to-person robots that bring hundreds of mobile shelving units to human pickers.
How Fast Can We Get Them?
It’s a sign of the times as e-commerce continues to grow while retailers and others struggle to find warehouse labor. Seidl cites a regional distribution center in Indiana that needs 100 people during peak periods, but has 20 open positions. "They told us, ‘We need robots. How fast can we get them?’" he says.
Hanna Yanovsky, general manager of Caja Robotics, has those same conversations with customers. "Every operation needs to be so efficient to meet delivery demands, and it’s not something humans can or want to do," she says.
The pandemic and corresponding labor shortages aren’t the only factors leading to projections that worldwide commercial robot revenue in warehouses will have a compounded annual growth of more than 23% from 2021 to 2030, according to ABI Research. Today’s robotics innovators offer a range of automation solutions that are more affordable, flexible, and scalable than conventional robotics systems.
Robotics solutions are better suited to the growing number of smaller, more urban, micro-fulfillment centers. These facilities typically aren’t large enough for traditional expensive and immobile warehouse storage, retrieval, and conveyor systems.
New robotic automation options can also be up and running more quickly. "With large-scale, conventional automation, it’s 18 to 24 months from the time I start thinking about automating before I move the first box out the door," says Dwight Klappich, vice president and analyst at Gartner.
Return on investment might take five to seven years, making automation better suited to companies that are large, have big problems, and have the capital to invest, Klappich adds.
With steel prices at an all-time high, "the return on investment for conventional automation is less attractive," says Rueben Scriven, senior analyst for warehouse automation at Interact Analysis.
Off the Charts Demand
It’s good news for robotic solutions providers—GreyOrange has doubled in size during each of the past two years, for example. Klappich understands why, saying demand is "off the charts." But so is the number of options, which can cause many warehouses that need automation to delay adoption.
While robotic automation systems can be operational sooner than conventional predecessors, selecting the best solution from all those options takes time.
What’s more, if you’re turning to automation to solve more than one problem, you probably won’t get everything you need from one vendor. Just as warehouses use different brands of materials handling equipment, they need multiple types of robots provided by several vendors. It’s why some robotics companies are acquiring brands with different product offerings, such as Locus Robotics’ recent acquisition of Waypoint Robotics to expand its product offerings.
"There’s a trend toward offering complementary solutions as an end-to-end process, with firms starting to mix and match technology," says Mike Futch, CEO of Tompkins Robotics. "For example, we have robotic sortation, while other vendors offer robotic storage and retrieval, and still others provide robotic packaging."
"Caja Robotics has done projects in the United States where ours is the main element, but there are additional solutions that link to ours from beginning to end," adds Yanovsky. "This is an important element for customers."
While some companies are anxious to implement robotics quickly, others that know they need to add automation to speed throughput, maximize storage space, and improve safety remain reluctant to move forward. "A surprisingly small percentage of the warehouse population uses robotics," says Scriven.
Fear of Change
A primary obstacle to adoption is fear of change. "People are terrified about blowing up their fulfillment strategy," Seidl says, adding that inertia is his biggest competitor.
"The amount of change management in robotics systems is dramatically higher because you eliminate and completely replace the existing process," he notes.
Even so, robotics offer lower-risk solutions. "Nobody wants to waste money or make a big mistake, but they don’t have to be as afraid about getting it right because the cost to switch isn’t as high," says Klappich. "Some companies bring in five robots that do what they expect them to, then add five more, and then another five more."
Another problem with the low adoption rate is there are fewer industry mentors or colleagues who have gone through the process to learn from. "You need to be personally and professionally brave and the company you work for has to be brave," Seidl says.
"It’s a huge step forward for them," agrees Ilan Cohen, CEO of Caja Robotics. His firm often overcomes reluctance by piloting automation in a small area of a warehouse before expanding. "This allows the company to see that they can still work hand-in-hand with other areas and that automation doesn’t interfere with operations," he says.
Understanding that robotics solutions are more flexible than conventional, large-scale automation also helps reduce anxiety levels among Caja’s customers. Starting gradually and showing that they can make adjustments helps overcome hesitancy, Cohen adds.
Flexibility applies not only to how and where a company uses robotics in a warehouse, but, thanks to robotics-as-a-service, also to how many they use and when. With this innovation, companies can upgrade or downgrade as needed by leasing technology.
"With conventional, fixed automation, you either have to build the system to handle maximum capacity with some going unused throughout the year, or build it for normal capacity, then flex with manual labor for peak periods," says Scriven. "With robotics, you can lease that automation briefly for peak periods."
Tompkins Robotics plans to introduce robotics as a service in 2022. "During the holiday season, customers can double their capacity with more robots, then return them," says Futch. Tompkins Robotics customers use its sortation robots primarily for e-commerce fulfillment, store replenishment, and parcel shipping sorting.
Working with a consultant to make sure you make the best decisions for the situation can also help, but there are more automation options and configurations than there are advisors.
"You need a consultant who isn’t aligned with a particular manufacturer and can look at the warehouse, understand the situation, and create a mission profile," says Jordan Teplin, strategic account manager with robotics consulting firm MacGregor Partners.
Finding someone with the right experience can be a challenge. "Most robotics people work in warehouse control systems while warehouse people use warehouse management systems," Futch says. "Many companies try to bring those two together so there’s one brain, not two."
Make a List, Check it Twice
Yanovsky recommends using a methodical approach to understanding options and making an informed decision. "List and prioritize needs," she says. "Identify pain points, then get educated about solutions."
Automation is no longer a "nice to have" but a "must have," she adds.
Factor in software integration capabilities when exploring vendors. "Make sure the robotics vendors you consider have already integrated their control systems software into the warehouse management system or ERP solution you use," says Seidl. He also recommends working with a provider that has experience in your industry segment.
The technology is new enough and the market large enough that there’s a sense of collaboration rather than competition among providers. "It’s the dawn of a new era," says Futch. "Robotics automation suppliers have created and are refining unique, innovative solutions to address today’s challenges."
"The market is so big that everybody will find their cup of tea," adds Cohen.
Decoding Automation Acronyms
Here’s a short guide to the warehouse robotics industry’s acronyms and language.
AGV: Automated guided vehicle that transports heavy items on a defined route by relying on location sensors, magnets, and lasers to navigate a warehouse without human assistance.
AGVS: Automated guided vehicle system, a computer-controlled materials handling system that uses AGVs moving along a guideway.
AMR: Autonomous mobile robot that brings goods to a picking station. Unlike an AGV, it navigates with computer vision, sensors, and machine learning rather than warehouse floor infrastructure.
AMMR: Autonomous mobile manipulator robot that is similar to an AMR, but can also manipulate items on a shelf before delivering them.
AS/RS: Automated storage and retrieval system that places and retrieves items from pre-defined locations.
Cobot: Collaborative robot that interacts with people in a shared workspace, often to perform repetitive or hazardous tasks, freeing up human workers to focus on more skilled tasks.
G2P, GTP: Goods-to-person, an order fulfillment method that uses robots to retrieve goods and deliver them to the picking station.
MSU: Mobile storage unit that can be moved around the warehouse, often by an AS/RS.
PTG: Person-to-goods fulfillment, a human, manual process that sends workers to find goods to match orders. GTP robots eliminate the time and productivity loss involved with PTG.
ROC: Robotics operations center staffed by robotics technicians.
SLAM: Simultaneous localization and mapping, a process used by AMRs to map their environment, place themselves in it, and move through it.
Teleoperation: Controlling a device or machine remotely, as with materials handling equipment in a warehouse.
Attention Kmart Shippers
With continued sales and network growth creating challenges in Kmart Australia’s New Zealand retail distribution and fulfillment system, the company sought a scalable way to get merchandise out of fulfillment centers and into stores more efficiently and with fewer people.
The discount department store chain, with more than 240 locations in Australia and New Zealand, required a sorting system that could handle its wide-ranging mix of products, packaging, and product configurations. It also wanted a flexible solution it could relocate and reallocate to accommodate regional shifts in its growing distribution network.
The retailer’s RFP process led it to Tompkins Robotics and its modular tSort system for retail replenishment. The U.S.-based Tompkins Robotics team knew that completing the installation during a global pandemic when international travel was restricted would be a challenge, but the teams from both organizations had a plan.
To minimize staff travel, Tompkins Robotics hired an in-country integrator to set up the modular hardware, an installation process that typically requires less than half the time and labor of traditional sorting systems. “Our physical assets just roll off the truck and are put together like LEGO blocks,” says Mike Futch, CEO of Tompkins Robotics. His company’s technicians in the United States monitored and inspected the contractor’s work using a variety of visual monitoring tools.
The robotics firm also ran virtual software tests before its technicians arrived in New Zealand to complete the installation. “We always try to do the IT testing virtually to shake it all out before anyone goes on site to test,” Futch says. Once there, technicians ran end-to-end tests and trained staff before providing on-site support when the system went live in May 2021.
Completed in just five months, the system has allowed Kmart Australia to reduce manual handling, increase throughput, improve both safety and inventory accuracy, and use existing warehouse space more efficiently. Pleased with the results, the retailer quickly expanded the system a few months later to increase capacity by 20%. And, they accomplished that in a single weekend.
“It’s a tried and proven system that works well,” Futch says.
Supplementing the Warehouse Workforce With Automation
The pandemic created a lot of inequality. Some industries were hit with sharp declines or even halts to their business, leading to layoffs, pay cuts, and ceased operations. Others experienced crushing demands that left them without enough labor. As the world revs back up, businesses are still trying to adjust, especially within the shipping and logistics sectors.
Because of the surge in e-commerce, warehouse workforces are being stretched like never before. On top of a national labor shortage, one in three employees is unwilling to do work that requires them to be on-site full-time. Warehouse workers, specifically, are tired of walking 5-10 miles daily and often suffering from degenerative musculoskeletal injuries.
To address these problems, the industry is embracing automation. Why? Automation can help warehouses become more efficient in their order fulfillment processes—from picking to replenishing, counting inventory, and more. And for those who haven’t begun adopting automation, the question is not if but when? Here’s how autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can supplement workforces while boosting overall productivity.
Workers and managers both gain from warehouse automation. It’s a common misconception that robots are here to replace workers when the truth is that they are here to help them. Warehouse employees spend up to 50% of their day retrieving goods. This includes walking up and down aisles or lifting inventory off shelves for fulfillment. This excessive manual labor ends up leaving many employees with leg and knee injuries and rapid rates of burnout.
AMRs mitigate these issues by autonomously executing most of the walking, reaching, and lifting tasks. Employees can then spend time on higher-order tasks that require decision-making and problem-solving skills.
With automation in place, warehouse managers spend less time handling personnel issues—hiring, training, managing temps, job assignments. They spend more time overseeing strategy, operations, and inventory flow.
Increasing Productivity and Accuracy
It’s commonly said that about 90% of today’s warehouses still run manually with minimal technology. Traditionally, only big corporations operating multiple giant warehouses had the capital to implement automation solutions.
Today, robotics is more accessible to businesses of all sizes. Robots are mobile and flexible, and have a faster time to value (or ROI). They are also commonly offered through robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) business models, which allows businesses to pay for robotics services as an operating expenditure vs. making capital equipment purchases.
Warehouses operating with robots can see a 5-10x increase in productivity levels. While AMRs are left to handle rote and arduous tasks, workers are free to work in bursts and on a variety of tasks. These tasks, such as quality control, packout, or managing new stock, can be more stimulating.
AMRs also offer the benefit of improved accuracy. As orders increase, so do the chances for human errors. Robots operate with machine precision and are programmed with AI software to pick only the specified item(s), in the right location and within the right quantities.
The benefits of warehouse automation are clear. Autonomous robots save warehouse workers from injury and harm, while also helping managers fill holes on their teams. AMRs enable businesses to meet the demands of consumers with increased precision and quality control. As we face a crisis within supply chains, autonomous solutions are key to restoring health to our economy.
—Lior Elazary, Co-founder and CEO, inVia Robotics