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Warehouses have traditionally been set up to handle bulk goods -- cartons, cases, pallets -- but the rapid growth of direct-to-consumer e-commerce is changing that. Warehouses are increasingly tasked with picking and shipping high volumes of small, multiline orders that require a lot of labor.
The search for efficiency and speed in carrying out this new warehouse tasking has spurred the development of new robotic technologies with a difference; earlier warehouse automation focused on the efficient handling of bulk goods by either assisting or replacing the human-directed movement of the goods to and from storage locations.
The new breed of warehouse robots brings the goods to the human at the packing station. This so-called goods-to-person automation uses smart robotic couriers to bring the right items to the right place such that the picker or packer can stay at the workstation picking and packing with no time lost roaming the aisles of the warehouse.
Amazon Kiva put spotlight on warehouse robots
This approach to warehouse robotics was popularized by a company called Kiva Systems, which developed small self-guided vehicles that scoot under an inventory rack, lift it off the floor and move it around. Kiva was acquired by Amazon, its biggest customer. Amazon has since stopped selling the warehouse robots in the open market; it is using them all internally and is reported to have more than 30,000 installed in its warehouses around the world. Autonomous mobile robots (AMR) are now available from other companies, however.
Optimization logic key for robotics in the warehouse
The physical warehouse robotics technology is relatively ordinary, using the same motors, gears and controllers found in many other robotic and machinery products. However, the software that powers autonomous mobile robots is far more sophisticated. Multiple robots move numerous racks of goods around the space, bringing the right products within easy reach of the picker or packers in the right order and at the right moment so they can fill the orders quickly and accurately. A lot of optimization logic is required to determine the best routes and timing to keep this mechanical ballet flowing smoothly.
The new direct-to-consumer role for warehouses requires new approaches to automation. Many business leaders are looking to AMR goods-to-person warehouse robots as a solution that helps makes such automation work.
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