Robots in modern warehouses

“Rapid advances in robotics”

Until now, robots have only been of limited use in warehouses, and humans have had a clear advantage when it comes to quickly picking individual items. Christoph Meurer, from Dematic’s R&D department, explains why this is about to change.

2017-11-20

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We are used to seeing robots on assembly lines and in manufacturing, but they are still a relatively rare sight in warehouses.

Yes, that is because warehousing requires advanced technology. The holy grail of warehouse automation is fast, automated picking of a wide range of individual items. Equipping a robot with the optical capability and the right gripping mechanism to pick a bottle of shampoo or a T-Shirt from the shelf and place it on some means of transport, for example, is a highly complex challenge.


But more and more businesses with warehouses are turning to this technology.

The retail sector, in particular, is looking more closely at using robots, and trends such as online commerce are driving this. Customers want to buy more things online and demand increasingly faster delivery times. I believe that robots will soon be the deciding factor in retail, where competition is very much driven by cost and speed of delivery. We know that many retailers have already set a maximum time of 15 minutes between the placement of an order and shipping it.


Businesses could just employ more staff.

There are already large warehouses with several hundred people working on processing, picking, and packaging orders, and it has become increasingly difficult to find skilled workers for some key tasks. Even more will be needed if the trend towards online commerce continues as predicted – and everything is pointing that way. That is why I believe that the fear of jobs being lost to robots is misplaced: robots will increase the productivity of employees. Robots need people to supervise them, optimize the systems, and manage growth.


Christoph Meurer

R&D department of Dematic


How big is this market?

A study commissioned by Tractica concluded that the number of robots sold around the world could increase from 40,000 currently to more than 600,000 by 2021. Overall, I think we will see very, very strong interest in robot technology. A large number of businesses still use paper-based order picking, and will soon be looking to automate this process. Robot technology is also of interest to sectors with low wage costs, not least because the prices for standard robots have dropped significantly. Work safety concerns and a lack of space in urban centers also make robots an attractive option, which is why China is one of the biggest investors in robot technology worldwide.


What does that mean for Dematic?

Well, we are certainly ready. More than that, Dematic’s RapidPick XT is currently the market leader when it comes to picking individual items. It is capable of processing up to 1,200 products an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are also busy working on improving gripping and vacuum technologies to make it easier to pick items with as much precision as possible, no matter what shape or size.


Are there any key trends, for example in specific sectors?

Packing mixed pallets and roll cages is becoming increasingly important for retailers, especially in the food sector, where pallets and cages need to be packed in such a way that they can be unpacked in the sequence of the aisles in each shop. This reduces the amount of time spent walking between aisles and makes getting stock on to the shelves more efficient. Or consider the ergonomic demands of picking heavier items – automation is virtually a necessity here, especially with an ageing population. Dematic is very much at the forefront in these areas, and in the systems that supply the robots with the goods to process. The ARM multishuttle, which is currently being developed by our research department, is a fully automated picking system that combines multishuttle and integrated order picking. And there are many other exciting developments involving automated trucks and robots.


So robots are no longer a technology of the future?

They are quickly becoming an integral part of everyday work in warehouses. Development in this area has been rapid, and has only been possible thanks to the latest advances in intelligent image recognition. These have made robots much more cost-efficient, and today they are capable of picking and processing individual products with greater speed and precision than ever before. Highly complex problems that appeared insurmountable not very long ago have now been resolved, and Dematic is right at the heart of this.