Robots are becoming an ever more familiar sight in warehouses, often automating what were once heavily labour intensive processes. In some industrialised countries, they are now a must, given acute manual labour shortages and the added challenge of meeting ever increasing throughput targets with no additional space available.
“We are already seeing automated solutions to optimise the inbound process,” says Sandra Lückmann, Head of Sales at BEUMER Group’s Logistic Systems. “In that application, robots are being used to handle bulk items from trucks or roller cages and further singulating items by aligning and evenly spacing them on the inbound conveyor belt.”
AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) have a role, too. Not only can they handle out-of-gauge items as part of the inbound process, but also take over manual end-of-chute handling, allowing automated packing. In some applications, BEUMER Group foresees AGVs being used to move totes to convey a completed order to the packing area, where robots automatically place items into cartons.
“The implementation of robot technology could potentially eliminate the need for warehouses to source or train skilled labour for these monotonous and manual tasks, and allow trained operators to focus on other functions,” says Ms Lückmann, who explains that automation is not a question of getting rid of people, rather redeploying them on more interesting, complex tasks, thereby ensuring their health and well being.
The question as to whether the deployment of robots is cost effective remains a thorny one. According to Ms Lückmann, it largely depends on the type of robot, working hours, and the level of functionality needed.
From experience, BEUMER Group has found that even at low throughput levels, the robotic solution can make good financial sense. Not only can robots increasingly match the ability of human operatives to handle non-standard parcels, they retain the same levels of efficiency throughout the working day and night – and never take breaks.
Significantly, she reveals that robots can still be cost effective even when handling comparatively low volumes in small and medium-sized warehouses. This is especially the case when AGVs are deployed, since the number used reflects prevailing operational requirements; this is especially interesting if the solution is based on a pay-per-use cost investment plan.
“The type of overall warehouse operation is decisive too,” she stresses, especially where potentially expensive night shift working is involved. In contrast, robots undertake the same work at the same cost irrespective of the time of day or year, or whether they are asked to work to a very late cut off window.
“At BEUMER, we also see robots and autonomous vehicles adding value in highly specialised areas,” notes Ms Lückmann. “For example, on side processes, involving lower volume or fast-moving items where it doesn’t necessarily make sense to install a conveyor. Instead, for these tasks, a “mobile robot”, or AGV, could be the best solution for internal transport movements.”
She nevertheless concedes that there is still a lot of ground to be covered before robots become a permanent feature of material handling processes in warehouses, and that largely has to do with the fact that the robot technology sector needs more companies willing to invest time and money in the development of such areas as improved gripping technology.
“The technology involving robots to transport items is already highly developed,” Ms Lückmann stresses. “However, solutions using robots to grip or pick up items are still at an early stage.”
The sooner that technology is in place, the sooner warehouses will begin to reap rewards of more accessible robotic technology.