Conveyors in the logistics market are taking on a new emphasis. Traditionally they were viewed as fixed/mobile platforms like belt, roller, slatted and overhead conveyors for moving goods from A to B, but such has been the demand for flexibility in recent years to cope with the seismic shift in retail shopping habits, more and more logistics companies are looking to robotics to give them what they need and hopefully a competitive edge

There are, however, other forces pointing companies towards robotics, namely the need to meet the low logistics costs expected by online retailers and a skills shortage in an industry perceived by many potential employees as unattractive owing to unsocial hours, poor pay and zero-hour contracts, all of which have led to much adverse exposure in the press. Such jobs also pose relatively high manual handling risks and significant absenteeism through illness.

Arguably the use of fixed line conveyors, whether ground-based or overhead, began to be eroded over 40 years ago by the advent of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) which subsequently morphed into mobile work stations from just basic carriers. Since then they have become more sophisticated, like the CarryPick storage and picking system from Swisslog. A low profile robot vehicle driven underneath mobile racks to deliver them to work stations, it was designed to offer a high degree of standardisation, flexibility and scalability, particularly suited to ecommerce business. A key advantage of the mobile rack is its modularity designed for easy adjustment to suit a wide range of goods within various receptacles, including hanging garments, an aspect that could displace traditional overhead conveyors. Being compact (up to 2 mt high) it will work well in any store of 3 mt or over.

For some time automation/ robotics has been easing its way into the picking and packing process, a task that has been accentuated by the need to fulfil single-item orders for online customers accurately. Robots can now even work on assembly tasks alongside humans owing to their array of sensors, and at remarkably low investment cost. Even last-mile deliveries to online shoppers’ homes may soon become reality as companies like Starship Technology are developing small mobile robots that can deliver packages directly to homes. Ocado is trialling a soft robotic hand that will be able to pick fruit while Knapp has combined robotics and image recognition in its Pick-iteasy robot to achieve picking rates of 1,000 lines/hr. In the near future some conventional conveyors may take another hit from Amazon’s patented invention to replenish stocks on board airborne fulfilment centres with drones.

One conveyor type that will remain in popular demand, however, will be the fast sortation conveyors as they are seen as essential in meeting e-commerce demands on time and dealing with the costly business of managing returns. But these key conveyors and automated interfacing equipment like robots place a higher emphasis on the need to adopt more intelligent, predictive maintenance techniques, especially as many warehouses are working 24/7. Any unplanned disruption arising from neglect is just not an option for omni-channel retailing, where failed, promised deliveries can mean permanently lost business. Maintenance management, therefore, should be proactive rather than reactive.

Rather than being performed based on a predetermined time schedule, maintenance can be triggered by relevant data, such as production volumes or recorded fault trends, and to help there is a growing range of sensors, like thermal-imaging cameras and acceleration sensors. Analysis of data over time enables trends to be revealed and preventive action taken to deal with potential problems before it becomes an expensive operating problem. If an operation is big enough it would be wise and worthwhile to pay for a resident service team on site to ensure the fastest possible repair as well as comprehensive, preventive regimes.

Given that market challenges demand more and more from their logistics and supply chains it seems clear that to stay competitive tomorrow’s business leaders need to view automation with less apprehension and give it the serious attention it deserves.