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A whole lot of metal…

05 July 2019

If you grew up in the 1980s like I did, you no doubt well remember how prevalent metal-heads were. There they were, big, greasy hairballs, on every street corner, with ghetto-blasters and denim jackets with band patches. All spandex, pimples and loud, rock anthems from the likes of AC/DC, Iron Maiden and maybe even Black Sabbath.

A whole lot of metal… a bit like the modern automated warehouse. It can be a problem. Operators get frightened by all that metal. First of all, the more there is, the more it costs. Secondly, large automated warehouses have historically tended to be inflexible and the worry is that if order volumes and profiles change enough, you could end up with a white elephant.

Witron touched on the first challenge recently when it spoke about key challenges facing the retail sector, saying it was aiming for ‘compact design, as well as short and transparent material flows, minimising the conveyors required’.

I think this is a key point. Economy of design and flexibility are both needed for warehouse automation to continue its growth.

Robotic single item picking is often thought of as the holy grail of automation. I think it is important, but I wouldn’t call it the Holy Grail. Sooner of later, robots will be more efficient at picking than people, but will it really mean a revolutionary change? After all, people are pretty good at picking.

I think the real holy grail of warehouse automation is a system that does not require enormous new infrastructure to boost efficiency, and can be overlaid on the existing warehouse.

Maybe we are seeing early signs of this in robotic automation that can learn to navigate any environment, and in software-based systems that can direct and co-ordinate a wide variety of different types of equipment and processes.

The extent to which automated technology and methodology can be overlaid on existing ‘caveman’ era warehousing and yet be robust enough to work and pay dividends in tiers of efficiency, that is the holy grail.

Check out our upcoming Automation & Robotics feature in the July / August issue for more discussion on key topics such as this. Get in touch with Angela Lyus for advertising opportunities at alyus@western-bp.co.uk