I am currently updating ARC’s research on the global mobile warehouse robotics market. I transitioned my efforts to this research effort after publishing ARC’s study on the global WMS market earlier this summer. And prior to that research, I developed ARC’s research on the broadly defined warehouse automation market.
It occurred to me as I was reviewing the range of solutions currently being offered within the mobile warehouse robotics market – today’s robotics can augment most manual processes and serve as a valid alternative for just about every traditional form of warehouse automation.
Labor, Logic, and Load Carrying
Operational planners often define their objectives, resources, and constraints when evaluating warehouse investment and staffing options. Within the warehouse, square footage and storage capacity are considered, but are not as frequently subject to change as other factors such as the warehouse layout and load profile, and possibly most important, throughput and processing requirements. Furthermore, reliability, direct costs, and indirect costs are considered. Direct costs can then be broken down into fixed costs and variable costs – and this is where automation investments can create opeational leverage. Upfront automation investments can substantially reduce the variable costs of fulfillment. But sufficient throughput levels are required to more than offset the fixed cost of automation. And sufficient throughput requires some level of consistency, or at least predictability, over a substantial time horizon.
Traditional automation such as AS/RS, conveyor, and high-speed sortation systems are great at automating processes and streamlining high throughput operations. But these technologies come with large, fixed costs and offer limited adaptability to changing operational requirements. They’re great for high-volume, predictable, and stable operations. In contrast, manual operations are very flexible due to the unmatchable range of human capabilities. But workers are expensive, can get sick, must be trained, and can leave a job at will. However, ARC’s prior research shows that warehouse operations have been experiencing increased variability and uncertainty over the recent past. This may be due to many factors, including heightened competition resulting from the transition to e-commerce. Regardless of the driving factors, warehouse operations are now placing a premium on adaptability – to throughput volumes, demand patterns, and load sizes. Flexibility is increasingly important, and flexibility is a common characteristic among the wide range of warehouse robotics offerings within my research.
Mobile Robotics – The Flexible Automation Alternative
Mobile robots are flexible in the sense that they can serve as an intelligent mechatronic platform, programmed and applied to take on a broad range of warehouse activities. But they are also flexible for the user. They are not bolted down to the floor and can be scaled up and down with relative ease. Furthermore, they can also be moved to different operations or locations as needed with relative ease.
A number of mobile robotics solutions serve as an alternative to more traditional heavy load transporters such as manual fork lifts, tuggers, and AGVs. The modern heavy load mobile robotics operate safely and autonomously, while dynamically avoiding obstacles and blockages. The value drivers for these mobile robotics are the quick implementation, safety, and labor savings.
Autonomous mobile robotics (AMR) are being applied to man-to-goods item picking operations. These solutions guide the workers from task-to-task while reducing worker travel time and increasing worker productivity. Locus Robotics is an example solution that decouples pickers from the robots, allowing for a greater degree of freedom that can drive worker productivity gains.
Prior to the technology used in AMRs, Kiva Robotics pioneered a mobile rack carrying goods-to-person system. More recently, a number of other companies have developed robotics systems that similarly carry mobile racks with inventory to stationary picking stations for manual processing. Swisslog CarryPick is one goods-to-person system that operates in this manner, providing moderately high throughput rates.
HAI Robotics developed a mobile robotics system that utilizes numerous mobile robots with vertical carriages and load handling devices for extracting and inserting totes or cases from multilevel racking. These solutions offer both high storage density and high throughput, similar to a shuttle system. However, the system appears more adaptable due to the ability of the robots to move with greater independence than traditonal shuttles that rely upon end of aisle lifts.
Finally, Tompkins Robotics offers a parcel sorting robotics solution that offers dynamic sorting capabilities with flexibility not provided by a stationary high-speed unit sorter.
These are just a few examples of the application of mobile robotics to warehouse operations. In general, these solutions offer alternatives to traditional manual operations while often providing productivity enhancements. These solutions also provide greater flexibility than is typically obtained from the highly productive, yet less dynamic traditional automation alternatives.