Robots Spreading into Warehouse Material Handling

Swisslog's carry pick (Courtesy: Swisslog)
Swisslog’s carry pick
(Courtesy: Swisslog)

Ever since the silent movie days of the 1920s, mankind has feared the coming of the robot. Science fiction writers and futurists have predicted that we will woe the day that machines that do job tasks were invented. They say that the future of mankind is to be slaves to machines or that we will be deemed obsolete because machines will be able to do everything we do.

Slowly we have been evolving into that nightmare. But since we’re aware of its coming, we can prevent it from happening, right?

Well, warehouse pickers take note.  There are robots being used now that pick products for shipping.

A high tech company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called Iam Robotics has developed an autonomous mobile piece-picking robot that can negotiate its way up and down a flat rack pick zone, pick products and bring them to a transfer station.

That robot positioned next to a shelf of products has been able to pick 1,100 pieces an hour in a lab environment.

In a real life setting at Rochester Drug Cooperation, a $1 billion a year independent distributor with a 55,000 square foot distribution center, the robot travels along an aisle and achieves pick rates of 200 pieces an hour. Currently, it is not working at full speed. According to executives at Iam Robotics, if it was, then it could pick 400 pieces per hour on a sustained basis. All of this would depend on how much the robot would have to travel between picks.

In a warehouse owned by Net-A-Porter, a fashion retailer in London, a robot picks pieces as it races up an aisle at speeds up to 30 mph.

In this case, shoppers order what they want on the company’s website and the information is passed on through the stock system to the robot pickers. The products are picked and then delivered to people at shipping stations. The system commands how the orders are collected and proceed to the packing station and barcodes are used to track every product. According to an executive with Net-A-Porter, the pick rate is more than 500 percent faster than if a person does it.

These robots are also causing changes in the design or layout of warehouses. For example, a picking system called Autostore ignores the common warehouse scene of banks of boxes on a shelf. Instead, products are stocked in a vertical grid arrangement and robots run above them on rails. The system can determine what is in demand and stores that at the top of stacks and the least

Hitachi-Racrew (Courtesy: Hitachi)
(Courtesy: Hitachi)

popular items at the bottom. The robots then figure out the best way to retrieve the stock. It is said that the system has reduced floor space needed for storage by 40 to 50 percent.

Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML, based in Dortmund Germany, is using swarm intelligence as a way to enhance the flow of materials and goods in the warehouse.

In a replica of a warehouse 1,000 square meters in size, the system relies on driverless transport vehicles that are locally controlled and navigate areas without guidelines. Instead, the vehicles know where to go due to hybrid sensors that guide them through the shortest route to a destination as well as prevent collisions.

There are already a number of start-up companies around the world that are developing and offering the technology. They include:

·      Knapp Open Shuttle
·      Swisslog CarryPick
·      Grey Orange Butler
·      Fetch Robotics Freight (and Fetch)
·      Scallog System
·      Hitachi Racrew

So, they’re not just coming, they’re already here.