Robot-led automation can make a tremendous difference to the efficiency, accuracy and flexibility of logistics operations in all settings. Nigel Platt, Lead Business Manager of ABB Robotics UK and Ireland explains why robotic automation offers an increasingly logical solution for logistics.
Today’s consumers are a demanding bunch, expecting to be able to order a diverse range of products, from food to flat packed furniture, with delivery to their door the very next day, if not sooner.
Meeting the expectations of fast delivery of anything one can think of needs a logistics operation to match. For busy warehouses and distribution centres, robotic automation has been shown to deliver a demonstrable return on investment through increased efficiency, higher throughput combined with improved accuracy – and hence, fewer returns and improved customer satisfaction. It also offers flexibility as a way of future-proofing logistics operations against changes, not only in the level of demand but also in the form it takes and the channels it uses.
During the lockdown, large-scale readjustment has been necessary in the e-commerce and parcels sectors. Overall, GlobalData forecasts a 20% growth in the UK’s online food and grocery market during 2020. The bottleneck for many will be the numbers of vehicles available and deliveries that can be made. But faster order-picking and despatch is also a requirement.
The search for flexibility
As with other industrial sectors in the UK, the logistics sector has been cautious about switching to unfamiliar technologies, with operators eager to see working examples of systems performing the same or similar functions. However, while fully automated warehouses and distribution centres still tend to remain the exception rather than the rule, there has been a growing interest in deploying robot automation to handle a growing range of tasks as users have become more aware of the potential benefits it can offer.
Part of this is down to the way that robot systems have evolved to offer more sector- and function-specific hardware and software options, with less need for the costly and time-consuming customization of generic models. Lead-times and commissioning times can often be further shortened by the use of digital-twin simulation for a virtual check of online-specific operation and compatibility. Integrated and modular systems are more readily available.
The publicity generated by collaborative robots (cobots) has also helped to ease any concerns potential users may have felt about safety. But it is also true that robot safety across the broader range of systems has not only improved but become more transparent to end-users. A great deal of thought – and programming – has been put into how humans and robots can work confidently side-by-side in busy environments.
Four ways that robots are transforming logistics operations
Whether as part of an FMCG end-of-line operation, retail distribution centre, e-commerce fulfilment site or parcels-sorting facility, robotic automation offers a wide range of functions. Four key areas of product handling and sorting across these and other logistics roles include item picking, palletizing, depalletizing and repalletizing, robotic storage and retrieval systems as well as singulation and sortation. When deployed in these and other applications, robots can help make inefficient, imprecise and potentially unsafe manual routines efficient, reliably precise and much safer. They offer no limits on the number of shifts that can be worked.
Delivering the flexibility for the future
We can conclude that, for many in logistics, the coronavirus lockdown and its consequences have served to underscore the importance of systems which are not only flexible, but flexible in ways that might never have been envisaged in the past. Building in this ‘what if…?’ element need not add hugely to the capital cost of a project, while conferring considerable competitive advantage in the event of these additional options coming into their own.
But of course, many of the benefits of flexibility in more ‘normal’ times are to do with evolution rather than revolution. They are not about a sudden shift from one sales channel to another, but having the capacity for a gradual drift, for example, towards e-commerce and home delivery, while keeping all retail options open. It might also be about an ability to handle seasonal fluctuations in parcel volumes or a trend towards larger unit sizes.
In suggesting an equipment specification, an experienced partner in logistics automation will always bear in mind these and many other possibilities for tomorrow – but without losing sight of today’s necessities.
For more information about how robots can help create the logistics operations of the future, visit http://bit.ly/ABBRobotics_Logistics2020.