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Robots are Becoming the Norm

For a variety of reasons, the ROI for robotic implementation has never been better.

Contributed by: MHI’s Solutions Community

Robots are part and parcel of many distribution center operations.

For years, the idea of robotics in the warehouse had something of a Star Wars-esque connotation. Machines that could take on the complicated tasks humans performed every day seemed wildly impossible. And even once robotics made their debut, they were big, expensive, and few and far between.

Today, the scene is much different, and robots are becoming part and parcel of many distribution center operations. Multiple factors and trends have played into that fact. “It’s always been about the ROI,” said Ed Romaine, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development of Conveyco Technologies. “Before, the ROI was out of reach for many companies. Today, the returns are here.”

Achieving an ROI with robotics is easier in part because the pricing has decreased dramatically, said Romaine. “These used to be big machines that ran companies $100,000 per robot,” he said. “Now you can find some models for under $10,000 per robot.”

These next-gen robots are not the behemoth automotive manufacturing machines of yesterday, but smaller, lower-cost versions. The costs have come down thanks to less expensive parts and more advanced intelligence. All combine to make robots much more affordable.

In addition, companies now better understand the roles robots can and cannot play in a typical DC, said Douglas Card, Manager of System and Integrator Sales, at Kardex. “People used to worry about robots replacing humans as pickers, taking away good jobs,” he said. “Picking is an example—we know now that it’s not always a good application for robots due to the various shapes and sizes they must handle.” But robots are fast learners and with some system modifications robot picking is a fast-growing application.

Robots are also serving in collaborative roles with humans. They often take on the role of transporters within a DC. “Robots might move goods from the storage area to the pickers, for instance,” said Card. “Or from trucks to storage.”

These are jobs that humans are happy to relinquish, as they prevent repetitive motions that might result in injury, can be prohibitively heavy to move and require a good deal of travel time. Humans instead stay positioned at high-speed work stations or ergonomic picking stations where they can remain safe, comfortable and focused on the job at hand. “This has helped in the shift in acceptance of robots,” said Card.

Beyond collaboration with humans, robots are also partners to other types of technology within a DC, said Romaine. “Rather than considering them in a singular way, robots are now mingling with multiple types of technology,” he explained. “For instance, an AMR with a robotic arm. All these systems are at the genesis of working together to create a highly efficient and effective operation, with minimal labor requirements.”

With some system modifications, robot picking is a fast-growing application.

Other examples include using a robot to replace case cutting and decanting, which can be a risky and tedious job for humans. The robot cuts the cases and then decants them, placing them in totes. “That’s a lot of labor and when you have an automated module to do it, you can experience up to 80% labor savings,” said Romaine.

This is key right now, as DCs struggle to find enough workers to fill the floor. “Growth in robotics is outpacing labor availability by three- or four-fold,” said Romaine. “There’s a point where the labor shortage amounts to decreased customer satisfaction, so robots make it feasible to fill orders and keep those customers happy.”

Robots also offer the advantage of better cube utilization, which saves costs. “Robots can help you avoid the need to expand your facility or move to a bigger one,” said Card. “For companies just adding in ecommerce to their operations, robots can also help prevent the need for a separate DC to process those orders.”

Romaine said the grocery and retail industries are adopting robotics at the highest rates, although many other verticals are taking hard looks at their value, as well.

Looking ahead, robots will only continue to evolve, and their costs will continue to decrease. “The systems are getting smarter and learning,” said Card. “Look for AI components that are built in, learning how to handle more product over time.”

They will also become more adaptive. “When you put down conveyor systems, they’re fixed in place,” said Card. “Robots allow for programming to learn alternative paths within the warehouse floor. They’ll become dynamic, with the intelligence built in.”

Robotics also offer a facility redundancy, helping to keep operations moving nearly all the time. “If you have multiple robots and one shuts down, the system will continue to run without a hiccup,” said Card. “They’re also scalable—if your business is growing and you need higher rates of performance, just add more robots. That’s a big benefit you don’t get from other types of automation.” WMHS

Connect with the members of the MHI Solutions Community — including suppliers, integrators, consultants, media, academia and users — who collaborate on solutions worldwide and in virtually every major manufacturing and distribution sector. They represent the industry’s thought leaders on automation, software, hardware, equipment and services that support a fully integrated supply chain (www.mhi.org/solutions-community).

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