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It’s increasingly common for decision-makers to invest in warehouse robotics. They face numerous challenges and often conclude that robots could help tackle many of them.
Warehouse leaders often have specific goals in mind, such as increasing the maximum workflow in a facility. Here are four specific ways that robots can assist with achieving better warehouse efficiency.
1. Reduced Manual Processes
When a warehouse team relies too heavily on manual processes, they can become less efficient and more prone to errors. However, collaborations between people and robots can reduce those unwanted outcomes.
Liberty Hardware Manufacturing Corporation is a maker of products like bathroom and cabinet hardware. The company saw drastic increases in its e-commerce order volumes for 2019. Coupled with that challenge was the fact that customers demanded progressively faster deliveries and wanted their goods to arrive the same day they ordered them in some cases.
The company’s leaders initially responded by hiring more employees at its 680,000-square-foot distribution centre but doing that wasn’t enough to cope with the demand. They then purchased 16 collaborative robots, or cobots, which made a significant difference.
One impressive change was in the company’s turnover rate. It was at 25% before the company bought robots. It went down to only 3% after the implementation of the machines. The workers reported that the switch from manual processes saved them time and energy, especially since the robots automate so many parts of their tasks.
Another difference concerns the amount of time spent on training. It used to occur across multiple days. However, it can now happen in only 30 minutes since bringing the robots into the facility. That time reduction means the company can devote more time to warehouse efficiency in order fulfilment and other areas.
2. Minimized Travel Time
Robots used in warehouses can also open new opportunities to workers who previously could not take such roles due to disabilities. Texas has an organization called Austin Lighthouse that provides employment training and various other offerings for people with visual impairments.
One of Austin Lighthouse’s recent initiatives involved acquiring autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to help 450 of its workers in warehouse roles. After getting accustomed to the AMRs in the facility, the employees became two-and-a-half times more productive compared to rates before using robots. More specifically, robots reduce the time it takes workers to move across the warehouse floor because there are now machines that help with both shipping and receiving tasks.
Alonso Perales, Vice President of Business Innovation at Austin Lighthouse, clarified, “We were drawn to robotics as a way to enable all of our employees to work smarter, not harder. Reducing the amount of walking they have to do to complete a task, in turn, reduces wear and tear on the body and opens up job opportunities to those with limited mobility.”
He continued, “It also provides the chance to teach a higher-level skill that can translate into a job outside of the Lighthouse. The software and robots are managed and supported by one of our own visually impaired employees.” There are more than 2.4 million industrial robots in the world. That high figure suggests there’ll be plenty of work for robotics technicians associated with the Lighthouse and otherwise.
Making warehouses more accessible could also help decision-makers cope with labour shortages. Statistics indicate less than 17% of adults with disabilities were in full-time employment as of 2020. Using robots to make warehouses safer and more productive places for people in that group should benefit everyone involved by increasing options.
3. Accelerated Picking Speeds
Many leaders invest in warehouse robots to target identified inefficiencies. Using an automated storage and retrieval system can bring an 85% improvement in productivity and a 99% lift in order accuracy, data suggests.
One often-chosen path to better warehouse efficiency is to let robots help with order picking. Sports and lifestyle brand evo took that approach after the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges with the company’s peak seasons left it unable to meet rising demands. AMRs helped solve the problem by cutting employee travel time in the warehouse and speeding pick rates by showing employees images of the products to grab.
When workers used manual carts for picking tasks, their average was 35 units per hour. However, after installing the robots, some employees topped 125 units per hour, an increase of more than 157%.
Company representatives also appreciated how quickly they could install and deploy this robotic solution. The initial robotic initiative involved using 10 machines, which were ready for work in only 53 days.
However, it’s also necessary to incorporate training time into automation plans. Many warehouse robots are very easy to use. Nevertheless, it takes time for humans to adjust to new ways of working, and some of them may have questions about doing their tasks near the robots. Allowing enough time for them to feel comfortable will help leaders reap the rewards of automation investment, whether for picking products or other duties.
4. Improved Risk Reduction
Warehouse efficiency is more likely to go down if a high percentage of a company’s workforce is absent due to injury. When people engage in repetitive tasks for hours at a time, keeping up such routines for the long term could lead to strain.
However, robots can reduce the chances of such issues. One commercially available robot can handle up to 800 boxes per hour. It also works well for various lifting tasks, such as taking containers off trucks or transferring cartons to conveyor belts. Warehouse robotics may not replace humans in all jobs like these. If they can at least give people a break from some of the ongoing lifting, that’s a good start.
The robots designed to operate with humans nearby have several built-in safety features. They stop moving or slow down after detecting a person. Some also have soft parts, so that even if they came into contact with someone at a reduced speed, that would not cause problems.
Researchers are also working on a context-aware robotic system that could result in impressive progress for industrial machines. For starters, this innovation means the equipment can differentiate between individual workers and their physical profiles. That information allows the equipment to predict a person’s next moves while staying aware of the environment and what happens within it.
Then, robots could work safely around humans and reduce the times when those machines have to stop because humans get in the way. If a robot anticipates a person’s movements, it can react by changing its path rather than ceasing its movements.
No Single Best Way to Achieve Better Warehouse Efficiency With Robotics
These examples show you how some business leaders have used warehouse robotics to get the desired efficiency gains. However, they also emphasize how important it is to take an individualized approach to implement robots in the workplace.
Then, it’s easier to verify where pain points exist and explore how robots could ease them. Getting feedback from your facility’s employees is also useful. They’ll potentially bring up challenges you hadn’t previously considered.