Advanced automation changing warehouse material handling

Advanced automation changing warehouse material handling
When we think about automation and robotics we most often associate such solutions with manufacturing. Rapid growth in e-commerce, however, has created a greater need for automated material handling solutions in warehouse and distribution centers.

In 2016, the automated material handling equipment market was valued at US$28.3 billion and it is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.8 percent during the forecast period 2017 to 2023, according to a report by MarketsandMarkets. An increased focus on worker safety and reduction in labor costs through advancements in robotics are also contributing factors to growth. 
Vince Martinelli, Head of Product,
RightHand Robotics


A watershed moment for robotics in material handling was Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva Systems back in 2012, according to Vince Martinelli, Head of Product at RightHand Robotics. “Prior to that, robotics was largely looked upon as a novelty within supply chain circles. Now, engineers designing the latest fulfillment and distribution centers can attend a show like MODEX and see tons of robotics solution offerings.”

In fact, 68 percent of supply chain managers believe robotics and automation have the highest potential to disrupt or create competitive advantage within the supply chain industry, according to a survey conducted by MHI and Deloitte reported in the 2018 MHI Annual Industry Report. Unfortunately, the lack of clear business case, lack of capital to make investments, and lack of understanding of the technology landscape remain barriers to adoption. Yet this could all change in the years to come as the benefits of deploying these systems become clearer and more necessary.

What managers want

When it comes to automated material handling, warehouse and distribution centers managers are looking for a system to not only overcome their concerns with a new system, but also add benefits to their operations that aren’t available with their current processes.

“There are a variety of features distribution centers managers look for in a material handling solution. The most common we hear is ease of implementation. Implementing automation is a complex process and managers are looking to minimize their risks during the implementation,” said Andrea Epstein, Spokesperson for Tompkins International. “No implementation will come without its challenges; however, with a well-developed plan, contingencies can be developed to help overcome these.”
Andrea Epstein, Spokesperson,
Tompkins International


Part of ease of implementation means minimizing downtime during the deployment process. Managers want a solution that will result in zero net downtime. “More often than not, automation is added to an existing operation and there is no room for shut downs. By developing a phased approach to implementation, operational impacts can be minimized or even eliminated,” Epstein added.

Additionally, there is a need for ease of operation. “The last thing any manager wants after going through a complex implementation is to be left with a system that nobody knows how to operate, does not deliver as promised or does not deliver reliable system up-time. The main motivation for automation is increase in productivity. It is hard to deliver any increases if the system requires constant support to operate,” she furthered.

Reliability is also critical. Martinelli named two main attributes related to reliability that are critical to managers. “First, the robotic system must reliably pick the correct items and place them into the appropriate outbound container, whether it’s a tote or a carton. Being able to confirm that the right item has been selected during the pick-place cycle is valuable in that it minimizes changes to existing workflows and software implementations, such as the warehouse management system (WMS) or control system (WCS). Secondly, the system needs to be operationally reliable and able to be utilized 24/7 with minimal downtime for maintenance, robust data analytics and metrics reporting, and simple operating procedures.”

The high reliability of certain robotic piece-picking systems at high rates can also help justify the investment for operators. Customers purchasing on-line, whether for direct delivery or for pick up in store, expect the widest assortment of items to choose from. Robotic piece-picking automation needs to handle this wide range of products, without knowing which one is going to be next and, in many cases, even if a product was recently introduced and is being picked for the very first time in the facility. Being able to execute warehouse workflows at high rates is key for maintaining flow through the facility even when peak throughput is needed,” Martinelli added. 

Benefits of lower costs and better performance

As the technologies improve and the applications become wider and more flexible, robotics are quickly being adopted by a greater number of warehouse operations throughout the U.S. and around the world. The flexibility and modularity of automation, coupled with a decrease in the cost of parts, has made such solutions more accessible to warehouse and distribution facilities.

“Companies have found with the lower cost of capital, faster return on investment (ROI) and modularity of automation through robotics is a renewed opportunity to make incremental investments that can be recouped in a reasonable amount of time. In addition, companies can buy what they need as volumes dictate and build capabilities, as opposed to a significant upfront capital investment,” Epstein said.

In terms of lower cost, “automation has to prove itself as an investment versus conventional manual methods but can also provide more flexibility, which can be valuable to an operation,” Martinelli said. He noted that with decreasing costs in robotic arms, high performance vision systems with high speed processors, and cloud data storage, “robotic piece-picking systems can now deliver favorable payback, typically less than two years, as a capital investment, or be offered as a Robot-as-a-Service package.”

The flexibility offered by automation is another reason to adopt. Martinelli explained that a Robot-as-a-Service package could enable operators to “flexibly adopt the next generation of technology as it evolves.” He added, “As for flexibility, robotic piece-picking, such as our RightPick solution powered by RightPick.AI, offers a viable alternative in regions where labor shortages are limiting throughput, which cannot keep up with the 15- to 20-percent annual growth in e-commerce sales.”

Epstein also pointed to solution flexibility as a key benefit, saying, “Modularity of the robotic systems is a key selling point for all automation manufacturers. Especially in retail and e-commerce where demand is highly cyclical requiring solutions that are flexible enough to be set up and taken down easily. It is very difficult to predict with any degree of certainty what the future holds so automated systems must be able to adapt as the requirements change.”

Automation is also helping warehouse managers improve performance and accuracy. “With the growth in e-commerce and omni-channel fulfillment, more emphasis is being placed on the rapid fulfillment of smaller and smaller orders, down to single-unit shipments,” Martinelli said. “Automation can help reduce cycle times, improve order visibility, which is important for communication with the end customer (e.g., ‘your order has shipped’ notification), and with the emergence of robotic piece-picking, can now be extended all the way to the item level.”

Implementing automation in a distribution center can also reduce a facility’s dependency on labor. “By increasing productivity in the workplace operations can gain throughput without any additional labor. This has become a big trend with facilities who are located in areas where labor resources are limited or diminishing,”
Epstein said.

Additional benefits to automation also include better inventory and order accuracy, improved safety conditions in the facility, reduction in damages, lower overall cost of operation and many others. Increased space utilization was also pointed out by Epstein. “Typically, the addition of material handling systems inside of a facility allows operations to reduce in size compared to more manual processes. It also allows for the stacking of operations within the system through the use of platforms and pick modules.”


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