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Renewed appetite

28 May 2020

Pandemic forces retailers to re-evaluate warehouse automation and robotics.

Before the crisis, the focus in operations has been increasingly on reducing non-productive time (in this context i.e. time not spent performing the task) and eliminating non-value added tasks, (i.e. tasks that do not increase the value of the product or service). These are not so much new initiatives rather a renewed focus.

Typically, much of the time in a manual operation time is spent moving between tasks, e.g. picking in a warehouse. In a typical example of an eCommerce operation, a manual picker, walking a shelf system could spend 60% to 70% of the time walking to and from the area and between the pick locations. Some retailers have automated this operation of bringing the goods to the operator, with ‘Goods to man systems’ – which removes the pick walk and improves pick rate by a factor of ~2.5. Naturally those retailers using these systems would have found it easier to adapt there picking operations over the last few weeks, as they’ve not needed to consider how social distancing will impact this activity.

At the same time, those retailers that have invested heavily in automated storage and retrieval systems will also be better positioned as these systems typically provide dense storage, and the development of shuttles (both carton and more recently pallet shuttles) have also increased throughputs significantly. When coupled to conveyors and workstations these systems are finding favour in many Retail and eComm operations. 

AGVs and AMRs

Automated Guided vehicles (AGVs) or Mobile Robots are not a new technology, but they can now offer transportation from one place to another with flexible routing. Those retailers at the front end of investments in AGVs have shown a growing interest in transport and workplace assistance with their new range of lightweight free path AGVs. A number of variants already exist for warehouse operations. Examples include:

• A tow tractor or lift table can be used to take trolleys to and from the pick area, avoiding the need for fixed conveyors. 

• AGVs, configured as trolleys, can link Pickers in adjacent zones, taking part completed orders from one to another, eliminating the walking between areas.

• Developments in navigation systems and AI now allow the AGVs to sense obstacles and react accordingly, e.g. stop, move aside or reroute.

While single item picking robots have been available for some time the problem of placing the picked items into the receiving container often meant the robot dropped the item, creating an unsightly pile and potentially damaging more sensitive products. Collaborative Robot applications share workspace with operators who could intervene and rearrange misplaced product. Applications in close proximity to operators also meant robot arm speeds were limited to ensure man and machine could work safely together. 

Advances in sensors and vision systems permit the pick and place robot to ‘see’ where the items are and to position them precisely, (e.g. place, stack or nest), taking account of items that may have fallen over or otherwise may have moved in the receiving box.

Such technology reduces the need for a shared workplace, an important requirement at this time, and the robot speeds can be increased accordingly. Resultant pick rates are now advancing towards (and may soon surpass) the rates achieved by skilled operators. 

The economic case will ultimately determine the take up of technology in the warehouse, but the pandemic has forced businesses to re-evaluate their warehouse operations, so perhaps the longer term impact of this crisis will be a greater recognition of benefits of new technology.  Before the pandemic, the signs were that reducing automation costs, increasing focus on workplace ergonomics and reduction of heavy/repetitive lifting, limited labour availability, and increasing wage rates, were all seeing the benefits cases improve - leading to increased adoption of warehouse automation. Time will tell whether the increased focus on warehouse operations now, will lead to greater investments in the future, but I think the appetite will be there when we enter the post pandemic world.

Roger Platt, senior technical adviser at BearingPoint, an independent management and technology consultancy.