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"Lights-out Warehouse" - Robotics in the warehouses

The requirements for intralogistics automation are constantly changing and Dematic plays a key role in driving these developments: independent storage and retrieval machines, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automatic multishuttle AS/RS systems. The experts also see the great potential of robotics in tomorrow’s warehouses.


"Lights out!" When this call resounds through children's rooms around the world in the evening, it's time for little ones to go to sleep. The world of intralogistics is quite different. In modern warehouses and factories, even in (semi)darkness, there is still a lot of activity. "Our declared goal is to automate all functions in warehouse logistics operations so that robots work while humans manage them," explains Crystal Parrott, Global Vice President at Dematic's Robotics Center of Excellence. Then, machines and technology will no longer take over monotonous, standardized work processes, but will be expected to make independent decisions based on their collected data and their analysis capabilities. If they can do it, it will translate to efficiency and speed. And a warehouse where individuals no longer physically work there and thus the lights can be switched off – or at least dimmed down considerably – is known as a "lights out” warehouse.

Dematic is already developing picking robots that prepare large orders for transport in warehouses. In the future, they will become even more intelligent.

Robots are becoming more intelligent

In the past, robots were simple machines that performed the same operation repetitively. To do this, the object they were to process had to be in the same place. In most cases, it was also identically shaped. For instance, robots could prepare large orders for transport in a warehouse. But it is no longer sufficient for today. "Shops have less storage space. Customers order smaller, more individually," says Parrott. As a result, large orders of identical products are less in demand, but rather a mixture of completely different articles. And they should be put together as quickly as possible. It is a completely new form of complexity. The machine must be able to grip assorted items in various positions. And it doesn't even know which object will be placed in front of it next.

An entire industry is researching how to teach machines to pick items from a box that all look different, soft or hard, perhaps with an oily surface, or where the same item was packaged completely differently yesterday because it was an anniversary edition. Technically, this is done with finger grippers or with the help of a vacuum. But the robots must become more ‘intelligent’. "They must know exactly where their arm is in relation to the product," Parrott describes. "Where do I start? I need eyes for this." In this case: cameras and sensors, which, in turn, require artificial intelligence that controls and converts what it sees into movement.

Dematic's product portfolio includes a robot arm for automatic order picking, which independently selects individual items, lifts them up and transports them to the designated containers.

The warehouse moves closer to the customer

However, robotic arms are only one piece of the puzzle in the warehouse of tomorrow, which will be almost completely automated. KION Group's other brands offer numerous solutions and aim to close the few remaining automation gaps soon. "Consistent automation is useful both for major customers with huge storage areas as well as for local retailers," says Parrott. The ‘last mile’ final process in the logistics chain where there is direct contact with the end customer, whether it’s in the store or at the front door, is also an exciting area for KION in many respects. It is being actively addressed by pilot projects such as Dematic's PackMyRide system, which can process packages of various sizes fully automatically, put them in the desired order and sort them into a loading rack, which is then automatically transported into the truck by an AGV. Until recently, it was not possible to do so in this way and has perplexed the industry for some time. Above all, it saves time and energy. The package delivery team must no longer sort and load packages manually, which can take a physical toll on them, but can instead concentrate on their core task: delivery. Besides Dematic, KION Group premium brands Linde Material Handling and STILL also have innovative machines up their respective sleeves for the same purpose.

"No customer will want to wait two weeks anymore and that's why the warehouse must be closer to them," Parrott explains. "The closer we get to the customer, the cheaper the last mile gets." Microfulfillment, or the small distribution center around the corner, is the keyword here. Dematic’s system has an extremely compact design so it fits behind a retail store and can put orders together fully automatically within 60 minutes.

Dematic already offers micro-fulfillment solutions for omni-channel distribution in a compact design that allows orders to be put together fully automatically within an hour.

Software and material flow as a competitive advantage

Another requirement for the robot of the future: its movement. It will no longer stand in one place. For a long time, the AGV was an initial solution in this direction. However, it had to be guided and instructed. In the future, it will be supplemented by autonomous mobile robots (AMR) that search for their own path and do not simply stop when an obstacle is in the way, but cleverly avoid it. "Yet, a moving robot on its own is no use," notes Parrott, adding, "Ideally, you can combine the two. Perhaps the robot can pick and sort its products while both are moving, making the pick rate and product flow even more efficient! The result would be to completely rethink the interior design of a warehouse. Because a robot doesn't just drive to the shelf; instead, it brings the shelf with it directly. "Current technology developments offer the opportunity to plan the entire goods process differently," says Parrott. "A warehouse was static for such a long time, but that his no longer the case. Everything becomes modular, everything becomes mobile depending on space and needs."

To optimise the last mile, Dematic is working on pilot projects such as the PackMyRide system, which fully automatically processes parcels of various sizes, puts them in the desired sequence and sorts them into a loading rack, which is then automatically transported by AGV into the truck.

The future is closer than you think

Currently, we still often think in terms of individual machines. But a fundamental paradigm shift is most certainly coming: In the future, these various machines will work together to create one large, integrated machine. The lights-out warehouse or distribution center. It may also become a material supply facility for very individual, specific customer requirements that are realized just-in-time in production or in the 3D printer. "What’s great about technology is that it's constantly changing," Parrott emphasizes. What's still missing though is a little bit to the warehouse that functions virtually in the dark without people. "But in five years’ time, everything might be different." Much of what is currently being conceived is not far from implementation, she concludes: "The next generation of robots which are smarter and more powerful is coming. And probably sooner than we think."