In many supply chains, picking is one of the most expensive warehouse operations, comprising as much as 55% of a distribution center’s operating costs. The process also tends to be mundane, error-prone and physically taxing. All of these aspects make picking a perfect opportunity for robots and other automation to step in and help.
The fact is, robots and automation are excellent at jobs that require
- traveling long distances
- operating in high-bay, narrow-aisle configurations
- working in hot, dirty environments
- counting and monitoring
- cleaning and disinfecting
- loading and unloading trailers
- optimizing systems and operations.
For example, automated mobile robots (AMRs) can collaborate with humans to make order picking more efficient. AMRs are powered carts used in storage media that use carton or each picking. Human pickers usually are assigned to several aisles within a warehouse. An AMR can use lidar systems to navigate through the warehouse to the human pickers, collect the picked items and move them to the location of the next step in the fulfillment process.
Similarly, automated guided vehicle systems (AGVSs) can help with picking bigger orders. AGVSs have long been used for transporting pallets from shipping docks to marshaling areas, where human-driven forklifts pick up the pallets and move them to storage. Now, AGVSs commonly are being used in e-commerce warehouses to pick a full rack of a product and move it to a picking station, where the human picker can select the quantity needed to fulfill the orders.
The collaboration of robots and humans is the hallmark of Industry 5.0. This next industrial revolution builds on Industry 4.0 and involves humans working alongside robots and other smart machines. The approach still leverages big data and the internet of things to achieve operational efficiency, but it adds the human element back into the process.
With robots handling the simple and mundane tasks, humans are freed to focus on the responsibilities that only they can accomplish — at least for now. Currently, humans are better than robots at jobs that require
- critical thinking
- strategic thinking
- empathy and communication skills
- dexterity and clear vision or recognition
- technical know-how.
The combination of human and robot workers can help organizations achieve greater operational efficiency while creating a safer and more enriching work environment for human workers. The role of the human worker can shift from monotonous tasks to activities such as strategic planning, nonroutine decision-making, continuous improvement projects, warehouse design and work requiring dexterity.
Automation for all shapes and sizes
However, some of the latest and greatest robotic and automation tools are expensive and difficult to justify for smaller organizations with low throughput. These facilities still can benefit from lower levels of automation that can offer operational benefits in terms of efficiency and flexibility. For example, horizontal and vertical carousels can bring items to the human picker, thus reducing travel time, improving picking efficiency and even reducing picking errors.
A horizontal carousel is a storage and picking system composed of a frame with a horizontally rotating carriage containing bins of material. A picking and stocking station usually is located on one end of the carousel. A computer system controls the carousel. Multiple carousels can be stacked to take advantage of the vertical space in the carousel’s area. A vertical carousel is a series of trays or bins that are mounted in a vertical chain like cars on a Ferris wheel. The trays rotate to bring the required items to the operator for picking.
For picker-to-part picking systems, voice-picking and pick-to-light systems can guide workers around a warehouse to quickly execute accurate picks. Voice-picking systems read instructions to workers while the worker walks, preventing them from needing to stop to read a picking sheet. The systems also can require audio feedback from the worker to confirm the pick. Many systems are equipped with multiple language options to support workers who speak languages other than English. Pick-to-light systems use lighting to guide workers to the correct pick. These systems can be language-agnostic, making it even easier for foreign-language speakers to work in the warehouse. Both systems tend to be easy to install, require minimal training to use, deliver excellent efficiency benefits and reduce picking errors by as much as 85%.
In addition to making work easier and more efficient, robotic and automation solutions could help attract millennial workers to warehouses. Recent studies show that nearly 80% of supply chain operations still are performed manually. By 2022, it is estimated that 50% of the global workforce will consist of millennials. This generation of tech-savvy workers is more comfortable with technology, which means they are more excited to work with robots; automation; mobile devices; and even wearable technology, such as headsets for voice-picking systems.
Attracting workers to warehouse roles is increasingly critical. In the past year, e-commerce demand jumped 44% last year, nearly tripling the 2019 growth rate and causing some e-tailers to increase their order fulfillment times. With more shoppers switching to online shopping during the pandemic, retailers could no longer rely on in-store shoppers for free picking labor. Instead, more workers are needed to help with fulfillment efforts from warehouses big and small.
As organizations invest in new technology, they will be able to recruit and retain the best skilled workers, equipping them with innovative technologies that will support the modern warehouse.
Learn about the ASCM Supply Chain Warehousing Certificate. This foundational program, developed by ASCM in partnership with Prologis, provides an overview of key warehousing and distribution topics to help learners improve their skills in this important function.