‘Sir… Ahh.., har wo cheez jo insaan ka kaam aasan kare ya waqt bacahye woh machine hai Sir’ – after a long period of time, this not so famous line from a famous movie reverberated in my ears. It was during a recent conversation with one of my friends, when I felt like reiterating the same line as an answer to his really interesting question – ‘What is it that makes it possible for eCommerce giants to deliver the product to their consumers within a day’. Well, you guessed it right, the company under discussion was the one who does complete justice to its name – Amazon – the mightiest of all. The question was interesting enough to ring a bell in the mind of an ops enthusiast searching for a topic to design the content of this latest article in the JIT series.
Amazon enjoys a cult following. It is a favorite choice for customers due to one crucial reason: quick and efficient supply chain management. Back in 2005, Amazon launched its Amazon Prime service. Customers, paying an annual membership fee, received a guaranteed two-day shipping on hundreds of thousands of products. In fact, the introduction of two-day delivery was the game changer and established the dominance of Amazon in online retail industry. When many other retailers started to catch up with that strategy by offering their own free two-day shipping, Amazon tipped the playing surface by offering a one-hour delivery with its Amazon Prime Now service. The combination of sophisticated information technology, an extensive network of warehouses, multi-tier inventory management and excellent transportation makes Amazon’s supply chain the most efficient among all other companies in the eCommerce world.
Through this article we aim at giving a detailed analysis about one of the game changing techniques that is an integral part of eCommerce circle’s secret magic that make one day delivery possible – Warehouse Robotics. If there is one technological advancement that would certainly make living easy and convenient, robot would be the answer. Robots are human like machines capable of doing task they are programmed to do and thereby decrease human efforts significantly while improving efficiency and productivity.
Back in 2012, Amazon acquired a provider of automated and robotic warehouse solutions called Kiva Systems. And in 2015, that company was re-branded as Amazon Robotics. The robots of Amazon Robotics can pick and pack without needing any human assistance, enabling Amazon to complete warehouse activities super-fast. Over the years, Amazon has significantly increased its army of warehouse robots. Its warehouse robots, in fact, have grown at the rate of 15,000 per year from 2015. As of January 2017, Amazon had more than 45,000 warehouse robots, and the robot invasion continues. It had amounts of 15,000 and 30,000 respectively in 2015 and 2016. To date, Amazon’s robotics have been aimed at bringing goods to people for the picking of orders. The next generation of robots will see them picking the orders on their own to reduce the need for human order pickers.
While Amazon has been increasing its army of robots in its warehouses, other online retailers were initially slow to follow. Now, however, robots are catching on both domestically and abroad, for both large facilities, as well as for smaller islands of automation within existing facilities. Autostore is an example of a robotic automation provider that can accommodate such islands of automation.
The brain of robots where they receive and record set of instructions that make them perform tasks automatically is called Artificial Intelligence or AI. Use of industrial robots has already revolutionized shop floor activities in factories. However, with continued development in the field of AI has led to emergence of new type of robots. Touted as the future of warehouse automation, these rapidly growing robots have reduced the time needed to complete several tasks and have substituted human effort to a considerable extent. Half of the supply chain managers expect to benefit from increasing logistics automation within the decade. Automation is already well established in many distribution centers around the world, but for most, it is limited to workflow automation managed by increasingly advanced warehouse management systems. While system-guided manual processes can make a considerable difference to warehouse efficiencies though, the value of full automation—perhaps the holy grail of distribution center operation—is typically the preserve of corporate giants able to build purpose-designed automated warehouses, or to adapt older real estate for “lights-out” operation.
The situation is changing however, as more and more MHE manufacturers bring warehouse robotics to market. Robotic solutions offer the ability to introduce automation into DC operations without the need for major structural alterations. From unmanned aerial vehicles and driver less forklifts to mobile robots, there are several robot variants in the market that can move about the warehouse without human control. Robots are assisting in loading, picking, packages and moving. With Amazon Robotics leading the way, there are many new entrants in the autonomous mobile robotics (AMR) market that boast improvements in the management, control and automation of warehouse operations.
To date, there are at least four types of driver less vehicles that are bringing new levels of efficiency and automation to the warehouse.
- Goods to person picking robots
Most warehouse managers are looking to apply robotics so as to reduce waste and human movement. According to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the average warehouse worker wastes nearly seven weeks per year in unnecessary motion, accounting for more than $4.3 billion in labor. While many logistics and manufacturing operations still rely on manual and paper-based picking systems, autonomous mobile robots can now eliminate a lot of unnecessary walking. Improvements in sensors, artificial intelligence and mobility enable these machines to be easily deployed virtually anywhere. These machines typically carry carts and can be programmed to travel flexible routes in the warehouse to move product between workers and stations. A French robotics company has developed a warehouse robot that can actually climb warehouse racks to pick from any level, then transition to surface transportation to carry orders to human workers. Capable of picking up to 400 orders in an hour, the robots are already in operation with one French online retailer.
- Self-driving forklifts
Forklifts are also becoming increasingly complex and intelligent with full autonomy for some applications. They are well-suited for operations whose load-handling processes provide little added value, are repetitive and involve longer distances. These automated trucks operate in fleets from just a few to 30 and are usually used together with manually-operated trucks for certain duties. The platform-based logistics solution enables the forklift to know where goods are and when they are arriving. It can then calculate the loading process, seek the optimal route, assign tasks to itself, collaborate with other forklifts, and send confirmation of placement and movement to the ERP system
- Autonomous inventory robots
Autonomous mobile robots also offer new opportunities for inventory monitoring. When combined with RFID-tagged products and equipment, these machines can now conduct their own inventory sweeps autonomously at schedules determined by the warehouse. It not only reduces the need for manual inventory counts, but also offers real-time mapping to managers can easily visualize product storage. For example, the robot might identify storage and placement that is leading to inefficient movements of machinery or people. In another case, it may better identify goods that are nearing expiration dates.
- Unmanned aerial vehicles
It may still be a while before drones are safely moving large products through the air in distribution centers or to customers’ homes. But in the meantime, lightweight unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) are already being equipped with RFID-scanning technology to offer real-time inventory visibility in the warehouse. Sensors and algorithms enable collision prevention and an intuitive design that enables it to adopt flight patterns to unique layouts and to navigate cluttered environments, according to the company. Amazon has again led the way with its dedicated delivery trucks and research into aerial drone deliveries.
Cost and Efficiency Benefits of Warehouse Robotics
While robots are currently less prolific where carton and piece picking prevails, the experience of Amazon bodes well for companies waiting for the right time to implement robotic picking operations.
According to estimates from Deutsche Bank, Amazon, which now has upwards of 80,000 robots in use, is achieving operational cost reductions of around 20% in the fulfillment centers where they are deployed. These cost savings largely stem from improved efficiency, with cycle times in robot-equipped fulfillment centers slashed from 60-minutes plus, to around 15 minutes.
The most obvious advantages of hiring warehouse robots are cost reduction and time effectiveness. Human labor force requires holidays, sick leaves, paid leaves, lunch breaks, health insurance, and several other benefits. However, all these requirements are eliminated when robots come into the picture. Pros at multi-tasking, robots can lift pallets of merchandise, move entire stacks of shelves to shipping stations, and carry out tedious jobs better than humans. While some warehouses have completely automated pick-and-package systems, other warehouses are experimenting with robots specifically designed for speed-sorting. The multi-robot fulfillment systems are some of the most expensive warehouse automatons that specialize in working alongside humans to transport palettes. Travelling as a group, these robots can navigate automatically, with guidance from a server. Some bots can even pick up racks and drop them to human-operated workstations.
The average cost of warehouse robot is around $35,000 – thus, complete automation is not possible for smaller retailers and a little too difficult for medium enterprises. The limiting factor is the high cost of automation, in comparison with labor costs, which prevents most retailers from completely automating warehouse operations with robots. The scale and type of automation may, therefore, vary from one organization to another. However, with adequate planning and research, any warehouse can find its optimum level of automation, loaded with sophisticated features. It seems that a future of total warehouse automation with increasingly sophisticated features and facilities is at hand.
“I ultimately got into robotics because for me, it was the best way to study intelligence”