Is Your Next Employee Robbie the Robot?

It’s coming to a warehouse/distribution center near you, if it isn’t there already. And if it is there, look for more in the coming years. What is it? Robotics. These mechanical beings already play a large role in manufacturing. Now the presence of robotics is growing in the area of material handling. According to recent market research, the material handling marketplace will embrace robotics to the tune of 8 percent CAGR or $20 billion by 2019.

There are reasons why robotics plays a growing role in material handling. Much of it boils down to workers and dollars.

Humans and material handling do not always mix well. Repetitive motions often associated with loading and unloading products increase the potential for injury. Injury leads to days missed and worse, workman’s comp claims. In case you aren’t aware, the average claim runs about $35,000 these days. There are other times when handling a product may create a hazardous situation or the conditions may be hazardous.

The other part of the human equation is availability and cost. Finding qualified workers has become a problem in many parts of the country. As a result, wages go up making jobs that do not add value very costly. That makes companies less competitive. Robots offer an affordable alternative by doing picking, packing, palletizing, and material transport duties to mention a few.

By now, it’s likely you have two questions on the tip of your tongue: do I need to make changes to my warehouse infrastructure and how much will this cost? The answers are, yes and it depends on your goals. Your current equipment and goals of what you want to accomplish determine both. Let’s look at equipment that’s required whether a robot or human does the work.

Does existing equipment work with robotics?

Every warehouse whether it’s automated with robots or completely run by humans still requires racking equipment. Fully automated racking systems such as the automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) require specific rack designed for automation. These systems are designed for high volume efficiency and come with a large price tag. Standard pallet racking including low-density, high-density and dynamic storage racks work well with traditional equipment such as forklifts and walkies. However, some mobile robotics can and do operate effectively with this equipment. More on mobile robots shortly. The difference with standard racking is the investment . . . significantly lower than an ASRS system.

Conveyors have a prominent place in both the automated and traditional warehouses. An automated warehouse uses more conveyors to move products from one station to another. These use servomotors or variable frequency drives (VFD) to regulate the conveyor speed, synchronizing it with other robotics on the line. Traditional warehouses also may use this type of conveyor although not to the same degree. A greater variety of conveyors (gravity, roller, or belt) is more likely in use.

Pick modules, loading and unloading equipment are present in both a robot-dominated and traditional warehouse settings. Much of this equipment is fully automated, leaving little room to integrate with existing equipment.

Finally, there is material transport. This is one area where warehouses interested in using robotics can start. It is an area of the warehouse with the best opportunity to deliver a fast return. Workers in many of today’s warehouse/distribution centers spend up to 25 percent of their shift traveling around the facility to get or return materials. This represents a large amount of time not doing actual work. Mobile robots used to move products from one location to another allow efficient use of human labor in work that generates value.

Mobile robots operate using one of three methods. The first is the oldest method where the robots follow a magnetic strip on or in the floor. Newer models may have a route programmed into its memory. The newest method and one that offers the most flexibility is an autonomous or self-driving method. It uses technology similar to that of self-driving cars like those promoted by Google. These robots are not limited to following a strip or fixed path and can adapt to changing conditions.

Next steps

The trend for using robots in the warehouse/distribution center is working its way to smaller operations as costs come down. Does it make sense for your operation? Will the investment deliver an acceptable ROI? Talk with trusted professionals who know material handling equipment.

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