The transformative potential of automation has been pushed into the forefront these past two years. It’s been a saving grace for many industries like hospitality and healthcare, whose operations were dramatically upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. And now, as these industries and others continue to battle a historic labor shortage, automation technology enables them to get work done even when they’re short on human talent.
Perhaps no industry stands to gain more from automation in the short term than the warehousing sector. For the past decade, excitement has been brewing around robotics use in material handling within warehousing as people’s understanding of its applications mature.
When people thought about robotics ten years ago, they mostly imagined automotive guided vehicles roaming warehouses. Some of this belief was due directly to the media attention that Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva Systems received in 2012. But the space has seen a wide range of funding activity since that acquisition, and consumers’ evolving online shopping behaviors are driving the need for better, faster, and cheaper material handling that robots can unlock.
Now, it’s fair to say that we’ve finally reached a tipping point for robot use in warehouses. Moreover, we can confidently say that cracking this nut open will have a massive impact on an industry that’s projected to be worth $625 billion by 2030. Here’s why.
Labor Shortages Increase Reliance on Automation to Reach Productivity Goals
Warehouse workers today are certainly operating within a unique environment. While the dramatic increase in demand for goods is a sign of an impressive economic rebound since Covid-19, it’s unfortunately happening amidst severe supply chain shortages and workforce challenges which in turn, is creating a host of issues such as order backlogs and a lack of space for inventory.
Because of this, warehouse owners are having to find a way to increase productivity with fewer resources and people. After all, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employee resignations in warehousing were a primary contributor to a record number of labor quits towards the end of 2021.
One way they’re attempting to support employees and meet demand is by deploying more warehouse robots, which have seen a dramatic uptick in adoption in recent years. Indeed, managers realize that when they combine the strength, precision, and speed of industrial robots with the ingenuity, judgment, and dexterity of human workers, they can achieve a much more flexible and productive warehouse.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), for example, which can move through their environments with little to no supervision, are being used to perform low-skill tasks like transporting, picking up, and dropping off product so human workers can focus on other tasks that add value to the product or operation. Meanwhile warehouse managers are using stationary robots, which are those bolted to the floor, to perform picking and placing, sorting, and goods inspection.
In Veo Robotics’ experience, we’ve seen high to full automation or blended approaches readily perform over 200 picks per hour compared to a person working within a traditional low to no-automation context hitting just 40-60 picks per hour.
However, the way forward is not a fully automated, “lights-out” warehouse with no fulfillment workers. The economics of full automation or a facility that requires only machine programming and maintenance don’t make sense. Instead, a human-and-robot-led workforce is our future. This means we must find a way to ensure both can safely and productively work side-by-side.
Robots Can Now Safely Go Cage-Less in the Warehouse
Robots are inherently dangerous, but because of a culture and commitment to safety, industrial accidents involving robots are rare. In fact, if you do the math, with roughly 250 million vehicles in operation in the US, you’re about 150 times more likely to be killed by a car than by a robot. However, as the use of robots has skyrocketed in warehouses, what does need safeguarding is the interaction between humans and their robot peers.
While one way to address that challenge in the past has been utilizing cobots or power and force limited (PFL) robots, that solution comes with other problems. Namely, sacrificing reach, speed, and payloads. That brings us to full industrial strength robots that might be used for stacking or unstacking large pallets in a warehouse. Because they typically weigh thousands of pounds, they’ve historically been siloed from humans within caged workcell environments.
Fortunately, over the last several years there have been major breakthroughs with safety sensors and intelligence enabling warehouse managers to break out of caged approaches and dated techniques such as using light curtains. To offer some perspective on just how important this is, just think about how inefficient and costly it otherwise is for a warehouse manager to have to perform maintenance on a caged robot that’s perhaps missing picks, or experiencing a failure in mixed pallet building. This is because first, the worker must get through the robot’s safeguarding to correct the fault and then perform a manual restart. This, of course, forces the warehouse to partially shut down operations until it’s complete, which ultimately means lost revenue.
Now, new 3D safeguarding methods like Speed and Separation Monitoring (SSM), which follows standards set by the International Organization for Standardization, such as ISO 10218-1 and ISO/TS 15066, means robots can finally break free from their cages, and warehouse workers can keep safe in collaborative robot applications since SSM endows any robot with spatial awareness to avoid people and obstacles around it.
While the use of SSM is still in its early stages, its promise for bringing robots out of their cages can not be understated. Warehouse operators can lower their investment in caged worcells and improve the output of their robots and leverage newfound flexibility on facility floors.
Riding the Flexibility of Human-Robot Collaboration to Free Up Needed Space
According to some reports, the U.S. alone will need another 1 billion square feet of warehouse space by 2025 to keep up with the e-commerce boom and the need to position retail items closer to customers for faster delivery. In addition, the price to obtain the space that already exists today is skyrocketing. The lease price for industrial warehouses is up 25% and vacancy rates are at the lowest they’ve been since 2002 according to a recent report by the CBRE Group.
The result is that every warehouse operator or company leasing a warehouse space is trying to do more with less. New solutions need to be found for increasing the storage capacity of warehouses and finding better ways for workers, retail goods and robotics to coexist and be in close proximity across warehousing facilities. And while some might think that going nearly 100% automated would be the secret to maximizing space, full automation actually lowers facility flexibility.
When every warehousing process is automated, everything must be placed precisely, with each part in its proper location. There is very little room for deviation in the parts and the process. Fixturing has to be just so, and any failure to abide by the exacting process design will trigger an error, a line stop, and a need for human intervention. Instead, the best way to introduce flexibility and free up space within warehouses is to simultaneously take full advantage of both of the most flexible resources on facility floors: humans and robots.
Enabling humans and robots to easily and safely work together in cage-less areas will enable a much more flexible warehouse floor design. In addition to improving space utilization in non-caged environments, human and robot collaboration can reduce order processing times, tighten the control of inventory, improve the efficiency of picking and reduce process errors. All of these things mean more products in and out of warehouse doors, which also eliminates the need for more space.
We’ll perhaps never rid this great debate about the use of automation in warehouse settings. But it seems the more we talk about it, the more inherent its potential becomes as fluctuating market conditions constantly push the need for more flexible facilities. Indeed, the warehousing space is at a crucial juncture right now. And as external factors continue to create challenges for warehousing workers, a collaboration between humans and machines may provide the best economic solution.