As the industry starts getting back on its feet with the ongoing pandemic, it is time to reflect on whether this pandemic is really going to go away completely or if is it going to be something which we will have to live with for a long time, if not forever. The public at large and the industry have accepted this fact and have started realising that the earlier we adopt the new normal, the earlier we can spring back to the wonderful growth spiral we were on before the pandemic hit us.
As both buyers & sellers go online, one of the first industries that will be back on its feet very quickly or is already seeing a significant traction is e-commerce. As reported by many business analysts, the pandemic has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for most e-commerce players, with sales doubling during the pandemic compared to the last year.
Robotics & automation is set to play a major role in supporting this industry in terms of reframing the supply chain, the material handling & storage practices. E-commerce players have been at the forefront in implementing the best of automation & material handling practices for their warehouses but the urgency to completely automate warehouse operations is going to accelerate with a view to reach at a ‘lights-out’ operation in the coming years. The acceleration will be primarily to mitigate the risks of supply chain disruptions, which happened during the ongoing pandemic, and also, to address the increased volume in business which is being registered.
History of using robotics in supply chains
For quite a long time, industrial robotics was focused on addressing activities which were dull, dirty and dangerous (the three Ds). The development of robotics technology was also directed towards fixed robots or what we know as articulated robots. As we started reaching at a maturity level in articulated robots, we saw investments happening in collaborative robots and movable bots, i.e. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). The initial moving bots could address low payload material movements up to a certain distance, but now we do have moving bots which can handle huge payloads, traversing big distances across warehouses.
In India, e-commerce warehouses were already using AGVs for their operations, but the usage growth was primarily restricted due to AGV costs and also interoperability issues between various systems in the warehouse. With several new players now entering the AGV space, primarily start-ups working in R&D supported with AI, development of low-cost AGVs will see significant traction.
Why do we now see a surge in robotic automation for warehouses?
Over the last three to four years, especially with the advent of AI, engineers have been focusing on how to have AGVs working more efficiently in tandem with the automated storage and retrieval systems or ASRS. AI refers to a computer’s ability to execute cognitive functions which we normally expect only from human minds.
When moving bots or while AGVs were first introduced to the supply chain, they didn’t have the intelligence to perceive their surroundings. Now, with the augmentation of visual and audial sensors, warehouse bots can work more efficiently and with addition of thermal and haptic sensors, they have come close to mimic humans in their work. Thermal sensors measure the ambient temperature and haptic sensors allow the bots to perceive touch.
When paired with AI and Machine Learning, the data from those sensors allows the bots to make in-time decisions, and if we club the edge computing or an IIoT solution to these bots, the humans controlling the warehouse get the information & analytics in real-time to validate the decisions made by the bots. Introduction of the right Warehouse Management Software (WMS) has also enabled information to flow seamlessly, from e-commerce sales channels to order fulfilment and shipping to customer, further propelling introduction of robotic automation in warehouses.
Robotic handling systems in warehouses
Robotic material handling systems in warehouses work on a triad of technologies as under –
Mobile bots or AGVs
Automated Storage & Retrieval Systems (ASRS)
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
AGVs now use the sensor technologies, as described earlier, to pick and deliver the material from the ASRS. These bots understand the warehouse environment through onboard sensors, maps, the bot software and the warehouse management system which supports in information about the inventory & locations. They don’t use a set track for their movement through the warehouse but create their own routes to either deposit or retrieve a package and rely on their own intelligence for their work.
AGVs equipped with sensors & laser scanners can work in lights-out fulfilment centres at ease, without any need of human intervention but still collaborate with humans at ease. AGVs can also be coupled with collaborative robots or cobots, or even articulated robots, to work with enhanced efficiency.
Since AGVs are now capable of handling heavier loads and covering long distances across warehouses, if we have the right combination of a cobot or articulated robot coupled with the AGV, the amount of flexibility & dexterity is multiplied, and it becomes the perfect work horse to work in lights-out warehouses, along with the ASRS retrieving or storing goods, putting them on conveyors and ensuring that the fulfilment centres work right through 24 hours of operation & also cutting the delivery costs by half in the process.
Aerial drones have been functioning for quite some time now and have been managing to deliver packages straight to the customer’s door. However, delay in formulation of drone usage regulations has played a spoilsport for usage of these technologies till now. With drone usage regulations now getting structured, we will find this idea taking off at a production level instead of a concept or proto level it was operating at till now.
Drones can also support to optimise warehouse inventory processes. With onboard cameras and scanners, they can quickly scan inventory locations and hook to the WMS for regular inventory updates. They don’t need any guidance measures and will completely rely on the on-board optical & computer vision systems running a deep-learning algorithm.
They will also not occupy valuable space in the warehouse & not get in the way of the mobile bots or warehouse staff and can reach at places in the ASRS which the mobile bots cannot access. They can scan inventory faster than a human and keep talking to the WMS for keeping the information live & accurate.
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS)
ASRS is the last leg of warehouse automation technology which actually receives the inventory from the bot, stores it and gives it back when demanded against an order. It comes in various forms and types, depending on the inventory to be stocked, like a shuttle system on a fixed track or a crane that retrieves goods between the aisles. It is also paired with the WMS for warehouse operations and closely works with the bots for material storage & retrieval.
Advantages of robotics & automation
Companies that invest in robotics & automation for material management in their warehouses can secure tangible & clear benefits to their business. Apart from reduction in operational expenses & increased efficiency, there are other underlying benefits which can get accrued as under –
Low error rates: Robots operate at zero error rate, executing the work correctly the first time and every time, unlike humans
Adaptability: Robots adapt to increased capacity requirements quickly
Safety: Robots follow rules of material retrieval and can handle packages at a height. They will never violate any safety protocol set at the warehouse.
Customer satisfaction: Low error rates & increase in delivery speed translate into increased customer satisfaction
In such a scenario, it is not surprising that the ROI for such investments are less than two years & technology-led e-commerce businesses will be the ones to watch out for in the future.