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Warehouse Innovations: Increasing demand for faster shipments is changing the way warehouses work

Monday, May 21, 2018 - 07:00
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Cloud Computing:  On-premise WMS solutions still dominate (Transparency Market Research puts such systems at 76.3 percent of the market), but cloud-based solutions are gaining steam. Most of the major WMS vendors now offer a cloud deployment option, and the annual Material Handling Industry (MHI) Report found that 57 percent of companies planned to deploy some sort of cloud-based solution (although not necessarily in the warehouse). Within the next five years, 91 percent of supply chain professionals plan to have deployed a cloud-based application.

Robotics: Robotic picking systems and other types of robots are also becoming more common in the warehouse. There are also now collaborative robots (or “cobots”) that are used to assist warehouse workers rather than replace them. They can help reduce the strain or risk associated with repetitive or dangerous tasks, while safely working alongside humans. 

In the automotive industry, the market for these cobots is expected to grow at a rate of 43 percent through 2022, according to a Research and Market study. Tractica expects the number of warehouse robots to increase by 15 times, reaching 620,000 by 2021. ABI Research, meanwhile, says that global revenues for collaborative robotics reached $292 million in 2017, and could reach $1.23 billion by 2025.

Amazon has been a pioneer in robotics. It acquired warehouse robotics provider Kiva Systems in 2012, and has deployed more than 100,000 automated guided vehicles in its DCs (while continuing to expand its human workforce). DHL is also using collaborative robotics systems at its co-packing and production logistics centers. 

What makes these newer robots truly collaborative is that a combination of sensors, machine vision and artificial intelligence mean they are safer to work around – they won’t barrel into employees while transporting parts to the shipping area. Because they can be use din concert with human labor, they can eliminate a lot of heavy lifting, carrying, and reaching that can otherwise lead to accidents or injuries.

One company, Sarcos Robotics, even plans to introduce a powered exoskeleton suit next year that would allow a user to easily lift 200 pounds with little or no effort. Other companies are developing systems that can use automated vehicles or other robots to quickly unload trucks and move pallets without human intervention. 

Collaborative systems are also less expensive and less complex than previous robotic solutions, which ABI Research says makes them ideal for smaller companies.

While there are piece picking robotics systems, they are still less reliable than human pickers in terms of accuracy. For highly dynamic inventory scenarios, robots are utilized for moving pallets or carrying items that a human picker has placed in a tote. However, some distributors (like consumer goods retailer Hudson Bay Company) are already experimenting with picking robots that can intelligently pick items from a donor tote and place them in a shipping box.

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