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How Your Warehouse Can Adopt Robotic Automation

Automation and robotics are accessible today to a wider variety of business types and sizes than ever. More and more, the question isn’t whether you can automate a process, but rather how – and if you should.

Let’s look at how robotics can be beneficial to warehouses, name some actionable tips for implementing robotics and talk about when human workers are the better choice.

How Robotics Are Beneficial to Warehouses

Industrial robots used to be clumsy, unwieldy and expensive. That’s not the case any longer. They come in many sizes and shapes and are becoming more agile and capable by the day.

Today’s robotics products are easier to set up, which is another benefit for the owners of small and medium-sized businesses who worry about the downtime required to add them. With programming-by-demonstration (PbD), human workers can physically instruct a robotic arm to do what's needed.

Humans aren’t going to be teaching their jobs to robots and then being shown the door, however. There are already examples of small and medium-sized companies in the U.S. using robotics for automation while elevating the employees who previously occupied those positions into higher-value, better-paying roles.

Safety is a benefit that cannot be overlooked. The selective automation of some tasks, like transporting pallets of goods from one area to another, is labor-intensive and not without risks. Robotics can pick orders from racking and heavy loads across facilities safely.

It’s all thanks to next-generation guidance systems, robots with spatial awareness and movement arrest features that keep nearby workers safe.

Another benefit of robotics for warehouses is that companies can realize efficiency gains and improve profitability in places they didn’t know to look before. Automated conveyor belts and machine vision stations can improve product throughput at inspection points, aid in the creation of standardized processes, and drive down error rates.

Actionable Tips for Implementing Robotics

Since robotics for warehouses is far from a theoretical concept, it only makes sense to look at what’s out there and how the products might fit into a warehouse manager’s labor portfolio.

1. Start with a problem that needs solving.

Maybe you’ve gathered data in a structured way, or perhaps you’ve just had a rash of customer complaints. As an example, robots can automatically place slip sheets, trays and cartons for every product that needs it, based on physical properties or user tags like “fragile.”

Take an honest look around, and maybe do an audit of the processes most likely to incur errors or eat into your productivity.

2. Automate functions that don’t require human ingenuity.

Some surgeons readily admit they only need two things to be successful: good hand-eye coordination and decisiveness. Robotic surgery isn’t here yet, but it’s coming soon.

Warehouses see a lot of pallets coming in and out that need to be broken down or re-palletized. This is a surgical procedure, but not a creative one. Focus on activities like this that involve the manipulation of pallets, as wooden and even plastic pallets can be hazards in their own right. Properly breaking down incoming freight takes precision, but it doesn’t take thoughtfulness.

You might also focus on processes that require high repeatability and a delicate touch, such as picking and packing fragile items. Some pneumatically powered robotic systems are precise down to 2 mm, meaning a potentially much lower defect rate and fewer products kicked out for accidental damage.

3. Choose products with modularity and compatibility in mind.

The best robotics solutions for warehouses are flexible, adaptable and as reusable as possible. Ideally, the products you choose will be from a manufacturer that has distilled its industrial robots to the most irreducible designs and emphasized compatibility with other modules. Nothing’s future-proof, but remember that interchangeable parts were important in past industrial revolutions and have a role to play in this one, too.

When Are Human Workers the Better Choice?

One succinct answer would be, “When you need human eyes overseeing an even more important task.”

Ask two groups that sometimes find themselves at odds with one another: labor and management. Maybe this is surprising, but the attitudes of some prominent labor unions reflect this. “It is actually a cutting-edge thing to have humans and robots work in the same place," said Brad Markell, representing AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Council in Washington, D.C.

Kay Manufacturing also understands that humans and robots do their best work when they work together. “If we didn’t have automation there would be no jobs,” said Brian Pelke, president of Kay. The company downsized from 120 workers to 40 during the worst of the Great Recession, but it has 180 employees now. It has never laid off a worker due to automating a process.

What are the tasks for which humans are giving up low-skill, low-paying, repetitive and error-prone work? Where in a warehouse are human beings a better choice than machines?

Your answer will differ from somebody else’s, even in the same industry. You can get started by thinking about roles that require curiosity, creativity and even emotional intelligence.

There are many other areas in the wider logistics world for which human beings are a better choice. Robots can’t always make judgment calls when customers need to make last-minute order changes, for example. People still provide a level of thoughtful and personalized service for which silicon hasn’t yet fashioned a remedy.

Megan R. Nichols is a freelance technical writer and blogger. She writes regularly for sites like American Machinist, DZone, and Electronic Design. Megan also enjoys writing easy to understand science and technology articles on her blog, Schooled By Science, to encourage others to take an interest in STEM. When she isn't writing, Megan enjoys watching movies and hiking with friends.