Collaborative Robots for Warehouse Logistics
Flexible automation is the future of warehousing to transform traditional supply chain operations. Adopting automotive technology and robotics will maximize asset utilization and improve productivity.
Collaborative robots, or “cobots,” are a major trend in the adoption of robots working alongside the human workforce. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) data analysis by DC Advisory, the robotics market will cross the $275 billion by 2025.
Reason for Shift towards Collaborative Robots for Warehouse Logistics
According to researchers, a workforce with humans and robots is 85% more productive than humans or robots working alone. Collaborative robots are flexible and easily programmable. Furthermore, cobots are safer as they are specifically designed to work alongside human employees to perform various warehouse activities.
You can plan collaborative robots working in the warehouse industry on the go and accommodate changing priorities. This flexible programming feature increases the number of tasks your cobots can handle.
From moving packages around the warehouse to carrying our order fulfillment tasks, collaborative robots for warehouse logistics are getting better. More and more companies are exploring the idea of cobots for their warehouse logistics and supply chain operations.
For example, Amazon explored several ways to enhance its distribution centers’ operational efficiency. Later, the company found Kiva Systems well-known for its robotic mobile fulfillment systems (RMFS). Almost a decade ago, in 2012, Amazon invested $775 million and managed to acquire Kiva Systems.
To date, Kiva System’s technologies and logistics robots are now known as Amazon Robotics. However, it is exclusively for Amazon’s own warehousing operations. So, the deployment of collaborative robots is an inevitable and productive move for the warehousing industry to drive efficient order fulfillment operations.
Collaborative Robots in Warehousing: The Current Scenario
According to current statistics, about 15% of the warehousing industry uses automation, whereas 5% is using sophisticated automation such as collaborative robots for their operations.
The cobots market will accelerate fast in the warehousing, order fulfillment and logistics leveraging the Industrial IoT, AI, and data analytics.
Locus Robotics is a well-known name in the logistics robots and collaborative robots domain. The company specializes in providing e-commerce fulfillment solutions along with its very own autonomous collaborative robots known as LocusBots.
The company spun out of a third-party e-fulfillment service known as Quiet Logistics that was also using Kiva Systems. In May 2016, Locus Robotics raised $8 million for its collaborative robotics and took some new initiatives toward the automation of its technologies.
In 2017, the company announced its Series B funding worth $25 million, led by scale venture partners. Since then, Locus Robotics has become one of the leading robotics solutions providers for the warehouse industry.
Locus Robotics’ turnkey robotics solution allows the warehousing industry to improve the efficiency of its e-commerce fulfillment operations. The best part is that the solution enables warehouse operators to manage both seasonal fluctuations in order volumes and labor costs.
The reports suggest that customers are already experiencing triple fulfillment speeds with almost 100% accuracy, while the warehouse operators save 30% or more on operational expenses.
DHL and Collaborative Robots for Warehouse Logistics
DHL is one of the world’s prominent logistics firms in the world. In 2017, DHA announced its collaboration with Locus Robotics and started a pilot with collaborative robots, i.e., LocusBots.
Fast forward to 2022, the DHL Supply chain has already implemented the collaborative robots for warehouse logistics on a full scale. The company has already introduced its first fully automated European small parts warehouse using cobots picking for 1-2-3.TV.
This fully automated facility has a storage and retrieval solution operational in 1-2-3.tv warehouse. You can actually witness collaborative robots for warehouse logistics working alongside humans. This Autostore robotics solution by element Logic is a perfect optimization of storage of small parts and order picking as per customers’ orders.
The Autostore solution is actually a structure of an aluminum frame. This frame stacks and stores the current inventory in over 40,000 plastic containers on 16 levels.
The top floor of the facility serves as a route for collaborative robots. 26 of these robots are actually operational in 1-2-3.tv warehouse located in Braunschweig. The robots automatically pick up the goods ordered by the customers and group these orders together for further processing by the employees working at the facility.
The next step is to place the goods into their respective packaging as per customers’ orders on the transport and dispatch system. The cobots automatically seal and dispatch the products. This investment by DHL in the digitalization of its supply chain and order acceptance process represents the warehousing company’s third step towards automation and optimization of its process chain.
Amazon is one of the leading companies using collaborative robots for warehouse logistics. The company is using the technology to improve its order fulfillment operations and ensure faster delivery times.
Collaborative robots bring entire shelves of products to the operatives working in Amazon’s warehouse. The operatives then prepare the shipment reducing the overall order processing time from an hour to 15 minutes only.
There are over 200,000 mobile robots working in Amazon’s warehouse network. Every employee at Amazon’s warehouse wears a robotics tech vest. This gear sends a signal to all the cobots working in the warehouse and makes them aware of the location of each operative and worker. This way, the cobots can safely move around the facility without harming any employees.
The vests used in Amazon’s warehouse use sensors and artificial intelligence to draw an access fence/path around the wearer. This helps the cobots slow down automatically and update their route to avoid human employees.
The development of this vest was Amazon’s response to concerns about the safety of robotics working with humans. However, the goal remained the same, i.e., to facilitate cobot-human collaboration in order to increase operations efficiency, lower prices, reduce defects, and improve overall warehouse workplace safety.
Promisingly, Amazon is even funding its employees to study robotics. This definitely shows Amazon’s clear commitment to the collaborative robots used in warehouse logistics.
The Future Strategy
While the logistics and warehouse sector is intensely competitive and intrinsically dynamic, digitalization seems to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the industry. From supply chain to logistics network and warehouse to order fulfillment services operations, cobots working alongside the human workforce are the future of the warehouse business.
While nothing is set in stone yet, experts predict that the beginning of the industry 4.0 era will act as a catalyst for the shift in how industrial employees operate. The labor’s role will transition from manual, labor-intensive work to piloting and programming the robots.
In order to ensure the cohesiveness of this transition, the managers will have to be transparent, proactive, and willing to up-skill the warehouse workforce. Warehouse operators that adopt the cobots and capitalize on the benefits of collaborative robots for warehouse logistics will gain an early bird advantage to boost efficiency, reduce costs and increase profits.
Prominent Players in Collaborative Robots for Warehouse Logistics
Apart from Amazon Robotics, other players such as Locus Robotics, 6 River Systems, Magazino, Fetch Robotics, and KUKA are a few names that have clear market opportunities. As time goes on, you can expect more robotics and cobots companies to join the venture.
It goes without saying that there will be more challenges along the way, but the growth opportunities as per the statistics may outweigh them. Whether it is the type of collaborative robots for warehouse logistics or any other types of robots of cobots in the logistics and warehousing industry, the solution will have to incorporate both human and robotics aspects to make it work.
In the warehouse logistics landscape, sometimes even the slightest innovation or modern strategy to manage and maintain operational efficiency requires digitalization and process automation. Therefore, the implementation of collaborative robots for warehouse logistics will also require following a strategic and diligent process for warehouse operators to maintain a market position.
Companies such as Amazon and DHL are already using cobots at their warehouses, working around humans. However, the common factor here is that the system tends to work in harmony with both humans and cobots playing their part without getting into each other’s way.
Collaborative robots for warehouse logistics and operations are here to stay. From moving goods to preparing orders and even conducting inventories, cobots are getting increasingly smarter using AI.
However, the efficiency of collaborative robots heavily relies on the generation of cameras, sensors, and artificial intelligence. These technologies allow cobots to find an optimal and safe pathway to desired destination or area in the warehouse.
All the while, the cobots are constantly interfacing with the information system of the company. The cobots also interact with employees, navigate through obstacles and readjust their pathway or trajectory accordingly. Thanks to sensory vests, just like Amazon’s allowing these collaborative robots to maintain a safe distance from warehouse employees and valuable property around them.