Leaps and bounds ahead
The market for robotics is already responding to these advances. According to a new report published by Allied Market Research, the global warehouse robotics market was valued at $2.44 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $5.19 billion by 2023, sustaining a compound annual growth rate of 11.6%.
Last year, XPO Logistics sent ripples through the forwarding industry by announced an exclusive partnership with AMR manufacturer GreyOrange Pte. Ltd., to operate their robot vehicles in North America, the United Kingdom and eight European countries. “We call them cobots,” said Mario Harik, chief information officer at Connecticut-based XPO, “because they work with our human pickers in the warehouse.”
The initial $450 million plan, XPO said, was that it would begin deploying 5,000 of the GreyOrange AMRs over the next year or so to, essentially, bring the cargo to the pickers rather than sending the pickers to the cargo. Each AMR can move a mobile rack weighing approximately 450 to 1,500 kilograms from the storage area it to a station where a worker can fulfill up to 48 orders simultaneously.
Controlled by XPO’s warehouse management system, the AMRs are intended to work together, as a hive mind, bringing priority overnight orders to the front and sequencing other orders as they are made in real-time, while moving other racks back into storage. As with most AMRs, the units are equipped with sensors that enable it to recognize its location in the warehouse and avoid static obstacles, like pallets, and dynamic obstacles, like forklifts and other AMRs as they perform their warehouse floor ballet.
This mobility “allows us to dramatically improve fulfillment time and cut costs,” said Bradley Jacobs, CEO of XPO. “These are important benefits for our customers – particularly in the e-commerce and omnichannel retail sectors, where order speed and accuracy are essential ways to compete.”
This year, RK Logistics Group, a California-based 3PL, which operates 14 warehousing centers totaling nearly 1 million square feet of commercial distribution and fulfillment space in the Bay Area, said it has completed a three-year testing program of AMR systems called CartConnect, which used cylinder-shaped versions of the classic AMR box. Made by Fetch Robotics, in San Jose, the CartConnect units can pick up different-sized carts designed to carry larger boxes and totes, and then autonomously deliver the cart to a destination.
When an employee finishes loading a cart, it can summon the CartConnect AMR, which then picks up the cart and proceeds to its directed location. At its destination, the CartConnect AMR separates from the cart, and issues an audible signal, notifying a worker that the cart has arrived. The worker then rolls the cart to a nearby workspace to complete the shipping process. This also relieves the worker from having to physically lift boxes from the cart and carry them any distance in the shipping area.
With workers collecting items six times an hour – walking an average of four minutes to each consolidation area – each worker can save 24 minutes an hour by eliminating the walking, according to RK Logistics.
RK has also utilized Fetch’s HMIShelf robots for the past three years, which works in tandem with a warehouse worker. These units have a fixed-capacity cart attached and typically can take up to a dozen multiple small parcels, boxes or totes. It is operated by an on-board touch screen, so when the human operator is finished loading the AMR, one of several options is selected on the touch screen, and the robot is sent off on its route. At destination, another employee unloads the cart and then, using the touch screen, sends the robot back to its origin.
The new CartConnect AMRs do not have fixed carts attached. These units are more flexible and can pick up different-sized, higher-capacity carts designed to carry larger boxes and totes, and then autonomously deliver the cart to a destination. These units can be operated remotely by any web-enabled device, such as a hand scanner or through direct integration with warehouse systems.
The Fetch robotics platforms are also being deployed by DHL for a Netherlands-based warehouse operated by Finnish power systems client Wärtsilä. The company’s 37,000-square-meter Central Distribution Center in Kampen, Netherlands, had sent more than 870,000 items to customers in 2015 and was interested in working with DHL to automate the process.
“Our robotic system is up and running and has already saved our operators walking up to 32 kilometers per day,” said Bastiaan Snaterse, project manager for DHL Supply Chain consultancy and innovation. “What is quite impressive is the flexibility of the solution and how easy it is to adjust to our needs.”
DHL also noted that, without any programming experience, the operators were able to modify the paths and schedules of the robots as well as designate restricted areas, demonstrating that the robots are able to adapt to their specific warehouse environments.
At DB Schenker, the robotics tactic involves AMRs, but also includes a mechanical arm to pick certain merchandise from warehouses. In a partnership with IAM Robotics, the forwarder has deployed IAM robotic units that move between rows of merchandise and pick out items from shelves as orders come in and store them in a bin carried by the unit.
“This is an exciting time for the logistics industry, where a lot of great technologies and solutions are emerging,” said Joel Reed, CEO at IAM Robotics.