The Role of AI in Warehouse Automation

In the last decade, the world has seen a sharp rise in the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). These powerhouse technologies seem to be making their way into every industry. In fact, around 80% of business leaders say technologies like AI are now mainstream in their companies.

Warehouse automation is no expectation to this tech revolution. It’s not just the natural progression of warehouse technology, either. Warehouses today need to manage higher numbers for SKU proliferation, with your average warehouse seeing an 18% rise in the number of SKUs, as well as managing the rising costs of logistics workers.

This has made the need for advanced solutions powered by AI and ML much more pronounced. So, what roles can AI play in your average warehouse? What does the future look like for workers, owners and operators?

Storage and Organization

When it comes to managing a warehouse, optimizing storage space is incredibly important. Mismanaged and unorganized warehouses mean less efficiency and productivity. These two negative factors combine to cut into revenue and efficiency. While in-depth understanding of warehouse management and logistics can get you a long way, leveraging the power of AI can help shift your strategy toward a higher success rate.

AI can help develop efficient floor plans around existing equipment needs all while optimizing your space. Trained computer models can also help with specific warehouse tasks like slotting with higher efficiency dynamic practices. 

The best part is that you can often work in these advanced solutions without needing to purchase all-new storage equipment. In fact, used pieces of some of the most common material handling equipment are often easy to tie into AI and ML tech:

Equipment like vertical lift modules may offer a lot in terms of warehouse management, but AI solutions can optimize your current inventory and space without forcing you to purchase expensive new equipment.

Productivity

Efficiency and productivity are the keys to driving up revenue and performance. Unfortunately, even the best warehouse management systems experience inefficiencies due to all kinds of factors:

  • Human error
  • Outdated data
  • A one-size-fits-all approach to system development

Take workforce planning. While a good manager will understand the ebbs and flows of volume, deadlines and productivity expectations, no one makes perfect decisions all the time. Implementing an AI-powered solution in your system means you’re always making decisions based on real-time data and the best algorithmic insights.

This leads to better scheduling and a better understanding of your business’ daily needs and demands. The result is a finely tuned machine that makes decisions using hard data rather than relying only on the experience of management. That’s not to say that experience isn’t valuable, but more to say it’s stronger when combined with AI-based insights.

Moreover, in combination with AI, you can implement fully automated solutions using robotics. This is a great way to reduce overall labor costs and keep production up and running 24/7. The best part? Robots don’t need breaks.

Safety

One of your primary goals should be to keep your workers safe. Unfortunately, workplace accidents happen. Investing in AI-based warehouse solutions means you’re giving safety the attention it deserves.

You can track where accidents are happening and who they are happening to using real-time data. Through this, AI can form insights into how you can better keep your team safe. Additionally, AI can help better understand what work is dangerous.

With this information, you can better implement automation and robotic solutions. For instance, if picking operations at high levels are causing accidents, this job could become part of your fully automated workforce’s responsibility. This keeps your team safe and your warehouse productive.

Accuracy

Even the best workers make mistakes. To err is human. But what if we could take as much of the “human” out of the decision-making process as possible? That’s exactly what you can do with AI in conjunction with warehouse automation.

Take picking operations. Warehouse robots can leverage ML algorithms to understand the most opportune times to be in certain locations to keep operations moving smoothly. It’s not all robots, though; some systems can even manage a hybrid workforce and keep human workers on equally optimized paths for greater efficiency.

With AI-based insights, however, certain “human” errors are less frequent:

  • Misreading labels
  • Counting errors
  • Lapses in efficiency

Task Delegation

While all kinds of robotic elements might find a home in future warehouses, it’s hard to imagine a world where human minds aren’t a necessary component. Today, many businesses are developing the framework for hybrid human/AI workforces. One task that makes this possible is delegation of workers and performance management.

It might seem a bit sci-fi to take your orders from a machine, but AI systems can learn from all sorts of data points:

  • Where does the worker need to travel?
  • Where does the task need to take place?
  • How long should it take?
  • What tools are needed?

All of these data points help the systems determine the most suitable designs to mitigate productivity loss and improve efficiency. If the task is better left to the judgment of a human, then the machine will make that call. If, however, a robot could accomplish the task faster and more efficiently, the system will also make that determination.

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In-Warehouse Travel Optimization

Travel time is a big thorn in the side of efficient warehouse operations. Workers spend most of their time traveling from one place to another. This makes the key to unlocking productivity the reduction of travel time. But that’s often easier said than done. Even with automation, travel time can cost warehouses.

This is where AI comes into play. AI and ML can use large amounts of data collected from your daily operations to learn the best routes for your workers and equipment. From balancing travel priorities to optimizing picking and packing routes, it all starts with data-driven insights into how your warehouse operates.

Through intelligent design using AI, you can expect a huge improvement in productivity and efficiency. This isn’t just for workers; it’s also for other automation equipment like robots. With optimized routing, those precious minutes of wasted travel time turn into hours of extra productivity each year.

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