Automated Warehouses: Drives, Robotic Arms, and Drones

Christmas is coming. Window displays are dressed up in red, gold, and green, and festive mood is in the air. Magic time, isn’t it? Not for all those working in warehousing and delivery. 

This time of the year, just like February 14th and Black Friday, is the toughest for e-commerce companies. And the most profitable at the same time. In 2018, Amazon announced the biggest holiday sales boost ever. This year, the world's largest online retailer surely would like to break a record. How? Little Amazon’s helpers do not have pointy hats and long ears, but they are robotically efficient and let Amazons’ warehouses work faster and more precisely than their competitors. So, a daring dream to crack own record seems to be more than real.

DRIVE ROBOTS

Amazon changed the game rules by being one of the first companies to invest in autonomous robotic systems for warehousing. Kiva Systems acquired by Amazon and renamed later into Amazon Robotics produced at the beginning two models of automated vehicles that carried up to 1,000 and 3,000 pounds loads maximum. The idea was not to replace human employees but to create a robot-human team, where robots deliver the chosen heavy shelve with the necessary item to the human manager. The robots navigate in the fulfillment center along the special stickers on the floor and have sensors to avoid crashes, but workspace for people is still separated for safety reasons. So it’s not a 100% cobot solution as far.

This summer, Amazon announced the new in-house developed robots called Xanthus and Pegasus (IMO, Rudolph would suit the Christmas mood more). The idea didn’t change a lot, Pegasus is developed to pick and transport individual packages. Xanthus drive is designed as an adjustable modular robotic solution. So, maybe, in the future, it will be upgraded with robotic arms or wings, who knows. Right now, Amazon is testing the efficiency of the single-package delivery approach with 800 hired models. With over 100,000 robots working warehouses worldwide, the robot to human proportion in Amazon employment is 1:6.

The drive robot market is boosting. After Kiva’s acquisition, Amazon uses developed techs only for own warehouses, and other leading retailers have to develop similar ideas to keep afloat. Experts predict the constant 3-5% drop in prices for cobots, including autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), as long as the market and number of developer companies will continue growing.

ROBOTIC ARM

AMRs are the bodybuilders in automated warehouses. They are strong but a bit limited in their freedom of movement. And a robotic arm is like a ballet dancer. It cannot carry 750 pounds, but, thanks to high-flexible joint construction and many freedom degrees, it can repeat even sophisticated human-like moves. Besides payload and the number of axes, reach and safety standards are essential for warehouse robotic arms. More on arm features you can read here. As an easy-adaptive solution, a robotic arm can be used on all repeatable stages of a product’s warehouse lifecycle. Here are some examples:

Sorting and labeling

A robotic arm picks a product with a gripper and identifies it with camera eyes. Then, the product is labeled with a unique code and placed in the appropriate bin or shelf. Compared to conventional sorting and labeling systems, robotic solution is more flexible and accurate. Some producers promise a three times higher productivity on this level when using a robotic arm. 

Packaging

The packaging robotic arm is a rising rock star on the warehousing stage. It has a small footprint, is easy to integrate and adjust to different environments. So, when thinking about the above-described Amazon workflow, the next logical step towards full automation could be replacing a human worker with a robotic arm. It’s the way that Chinese bro of Amazon, Jingdong, chose. A year ago, the second biggest retailer of China opened the world's first FULLY automated warehouse.

Product receiving, sorting, storage, and packing follow without a single human sorter to to get involved in the process. With processing 9,000 parcels/hour, an automated warehouse saves JD millions of dollars.

DRONES

Breaking news like „Drone delivered a pizza/a donor kidney in 3 minutes” isn’t that breaking anymore. Amazon is two steps away from launching its Prime Air drone-delivery system. Logistic giants DHL and UPS do trial deliveries with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) all over the world. And what about warehousing? Why not use flying drones indoors to help managers collect orders faster?

Drones easily reach even the highest shelves in the warehouse. They are smaller than drives, do not need any marks to navigate, and have 6 freedom degrees. But they can’t carry heavy or large packages. The other problem - pick-and-place function. Robotic arm (or leg?) of a drone should be flexible and adjustable to different forms of a package. So for warehousing indoor delivery drones development is still in process. 

However, drones already found their application in just as important part of the warehouse’s life: inventory management. So-called cycle counting is a headache for many e-commerce companies because:

  1. Cycle control influences the correctness of the whole warehouse process. In an ideal world with unicorns, control should be conducted every day. 
  2. Daily control requires extra workers. 
  3. Manual scanning is time-consuming.
  4. Workers need forklifts for checking the higher shelves. This work is often hazardous.
  5. Monotonous repetitive tasks seem like the employee’s perfect comfort zone. No new efforts. Workday is always predictable. But studies have shown that employees who have to do routine tasks feel stressed out, are less focused on the accuracy and perceive their job more of a burden than other kinds of work.

And this is where a drone could be a flying miracle for warehouse owners. A drone using optical sensors can scan barcodes, calculate and send the information on inventory to the warehouse management system (WMS) faster and more accurate than a person does. Is a shelf empty? Is an item located correctly? How much free space is there? Drones can do cycle control anytime and at any height, they can make videos and photos of alert cases and send them directly to the WMS. Some slight inaccuracies could even be fixed straight away by a robotic arm.

SO, NO PAIN, JUST GAIN?

It seems to be. Online commerce is growing, clients’ demands for „good service“ are getting harder to meet. But the Big Three criteria remain the same: product price, delivery terms, and refund policy. Warehouse automatization upgrades at least the two first parameters. Warehousing constitutes 30% of logistics costs in the USA. Imagine robots operating your warehouse 24/7: all the tasks are performed faster and with greater accuracy. Drones deliver a package carefully taped by a robotic arm right to the doors of your client within a day. So handy for all those who forgot about their anniversary/ February 14th /Christmas/ mothers B-day. Human errors are excluded which prevents some expectation/reality challenges for end-customers. Raised efficiency leads to lower storage-delivery prices for customers. A bright picture of the future?

But, to be realistic, robotic technologies are still evolving and pretty expensive for small businesses. According to Statista, the average price of industrial robots has dropped to $45,000 in 2018, from $63,000 in 2009. So automation of small warehouses with robotic arms, drives, and drones will lead rather to excessive productivity without gaining the return on investments. At the same time, the full automatization at warehouses of the e-commerce monsters is just a matter of time.

AND WHAT ABOUT HUMANS? 

The high tempo of robotization in e-commerce awakens fears among employees and labor lawyers. Robots are coming? No work for humans anymore? Yes. No work that can be robotized. Repetitive, low-skilled, mundane and creative-poor work. Maybe the author is too optimistic and underestimates the Robotization Threat, but, surely, new workplaces will appear, and new jobs as well, and a robotic arm and a human hand will work side-by-side. Robotic engineers, robot’s managers, robot coaches, etc. It sounds a bit challenging, but it will be better paid and not so physically difficult.

P.S. But how will it end for all those who work in e-commerce warehouses now and do not have a chance to gain a new profession? 

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