By Rob Sullivan
As e-commerce has exploded, so has the demand to automate warehouse and distribution center logistics. Global enterprises that move thousands of pallets per day have been known to spend $30 million to $80 million to build automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) infrastructures for racking and picking materials. While these systems have their benefits, including optimizing warehouse efficiency, increasing safety and reducing reliance on human labor, the staggering costs and limitations of the highly inflexible ASRS installations are keeping smaller operations from upgrading critical storage and retrieval needs to stay competitive.
These complex systems—a major capital expense that includes proprietary storage racks, custom pallets, material handling hardware for storage and retrieval, such as massive cranes and automated conveyor systems, and inventory management—take a year or more to deploy, often in a dedicated storage and retrieval zone. In addition to being inflexible and difficult to modify or upgrade as facility demands change, the traditional automated storage and retrieval system has single points of failure, where one issue can shut down an entire aisle. Even companies with the budgets and time for a buildout like this will not always have facilities tall enough to allow the 40-foot racks traditional ASRS systems require.
The Solution? Replacing Automated with Autonomous
Within the last three years, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) have entered the market, automating material handling across manufacturing, healthcare and warehouse logistics without the need for infrastructure changes. Now, these highly flexible, sophisticated and cost-effective AMRs are opening up ASRS as mobile and autonomous storage and retrieval systems, making them accessible for all warehouses and e-commerce distribution centers. By safely transporting more material with less manpower, potentially fewer trips and without infrastructure investments, AMRs have already changed investment calculations for material transportation, with the ROI expected in 18 to 24 months. In addition, advanced software included with the AMRs manages fleets of mobile robots and integrates with an inventory management module so it knows where the inventory is stored at all times.
Since the AMR can work with a warehouse’s existing rack infrastructure, the autonomous storage and retrieval systems are ideal for unpredictable or changing layouts and dynamic work environments. The flexibility and cost-effectiveness of AMRs also make them an attractive option for companies of nearly any size and budget to automate and optimize this massive material handling task at a fraction of the cost of traditional ASRS.
Autonomous Storage and Retrieval Makes Automation Facility Wide
Here’s how the different systems would perform the same workflow:
- Traditional automated storage and retrieval: With traditional ASRS, pallets of material come off a truck at the receiving dock, where a manually operated forklift transports them to a conveyor system that then delivers them into the ASRS infrastructure before cranes place the pallets into the storage racks.
- Autonomous storage and retrieval: With an autonomous storage and retrieval system, the pallets come off the truck at the receiving dock and are autonomously transported by AMRs—connected to detailed inventory awareness for the entire facility—directly into the proper zone and aisle, and then lifted onto storage racks using the AMR forklift or high bay vehicle, depending on the height of the storage location.
Since autonomous storage and retrieval systems can work with different AMRs—from tuggers to forklifts to high bay forklifts, the autonomous system can handle the entire workflow process, including inventory management. For example, the autonomous storage and retrieval system lets the integrated warehouse management systems (WMS) communicate put-away requests to fleet management systems. Working together, the fleet management and inventory management systems locate an available AMR and send a pick-up command. The forklift can then execute pallet pick-up and placement on an available tugger before the tugger transports the pallets to the designated racking location. A high bay AMR forklift then engages with the tugger and systematically removes and racks the pallets. It’s a completely autonomous workflow.
AMRs + Inventory Management Equal Affordable and Flexible Mobile ASRS
In today’s dynamic warehouse environment, with ever-changing customer needs, automating material handling is needed to stay competitive, but using an autonomous process is even better. With AMRs available for quick deployment without complex, costly infrastructure changes, facilities of any size can now take advantage of this previously unattainable storage and retrieval strategy. Combined with inventory management, smaller operations can gain the same efficiencies as their larger counterparts, and larger facilities already using traditional automated storage and retrieval systems can add on an autonomous system as their business grows. These flexible, affordable and autonomous solutions can then be modified for business and seasonal adjustments, all with dramatically lower costs than traditional ASRS or fully manned material transport. WMHS.
Contributor: Rob Sullivan, president and CEO, AutoGuide Mobile Robots. AutoGuide Mobile Robots designs, develops and manufactures high-payload industrial autonomous mobile robots for assembly, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution operations across multiple industries. (AGMobileRobots.com)