Warehouse As an Assembly Line: Mobile Robotics With the evolving technologies and emerging capabilities of mobile robots, the idea of human-robot collaboration has picked up the conversation across the globe

By Sangeet Kumar

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Robots have come a long way since their introduction in the 60s. But recently, they have found their exclusive space in the warehouses. Warehousing activities comprise of tasks such as inbound, picking, storage, movement and transfer, packing and outbound, etc. These tasks can be broken down into steps like in an assembly line and the concept of division of labor can be applied on the same. With the evolving technologies and emerging capabilities of mobile robots, the idea of human-robot collaboration has picked up the conversation across the globe. Humans can be divided to operate in the assembly line of a warehouse to carry out the above-mentioned tasks by collaborating with their robotic counterparts. In this case, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are a simple, efficient, and cost-effective way to automate all the tasks related to storage and material movement till the dispatch of items from the warehouse where previously manual operators were required to push carts around the facility.

Some very apt application of mobile robots which has contributed to marking its own place in the warehouse are mentioned below:

Picking: AMRs are incredibly versatile. Not only can they speed up the picking process by handling the tedious task of moving products around, but some collaborative robots can guide operators through tasks by navigating to inventory locations, displaying the items and quantities to pick, directing workflows and keeping associates on task to improve the accuracy and efficiency of order fulfilment operations. AMRs can determine and follow optimised picking routes and are particularly valuable in facilitating zone and pick-and-pass picking methodologies.

Storage: The Stacker‐Bot can store and retrieve on a single trip up to five cases or totes. The AMR automatically picks a case or tote, scans the barcode and stores it in the Stacker‐Bot on any one of the five onboard shelves. It then uses its RCS (robot control system) and communicates to the WMS/WCS host software system.

Transfer of material: Movement inside the warehouse can be very well optimized by mobile robots. AMRs with mounted conveyor can be used for moving pallets, crates, cases etc. from one place to another. For conveyor, it can be either roller conveyor, belt conveyor or chain conveyor, depending upon the load to carry. An AMR can interact with any machine - which can be a source for feeding the load and drops it on another machine - the destination for the load. An AMR will dynamically plan the shortest path based on current conditions and requirements using technology such as LiDAR sensors & Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM).

Packing: Robot systems that feature an industrial robot on top of a mobile platform can help with the optimization of packaging processes. Mobile robots' ability to move around the warehouse floor also offers operational flexibility, as the units can travel among various packaging workstations and perform relevant work at each one.

Sortation: Mobile robots can be suitable to carry out the sorting operation inside the warehouse in a faster and accurate manner. AMRs can sort up to an impressive 18,000 parcels an hour. For industries such as grocery retail, it can sort items from among dry groceries and wet groceries and then again sort it further as per different dispatch destinations. Similarly, for fashion retail, it can sort the items as per different SKUs & styles and further classify them as per different retail store or e-commerce order destinations.

Inbound and Outbound: AMRs with tuggers are the novel methods to carry out the inbound and outbound activities along with material transfer. They are equipped with a hook and lifter for efficient and fully automated pick-up and towing of trolleys in the warehouse. It can be used either for pallet, carton or crate load formats.

Mobile robots move around a warehouse floor independently without any cages to perform their tasks. Despite not having fencing around them, mobile robots are completely safe to use alongside humans in the workspace. By deploying Mobile robots inside the warehouse, workers are redeployed for higher-value tasks. Deployment of mobile robots does not need any infrastructure set up. It can be easily rerouted for new warehouse layouts and the robots' missions can adapt to match order fulfilment requirements for faster or slower processes. This way it will be easier to scale up and down during low or peak demand. Also, AMR software can be integrated with any MES, ERP, or WMS systems to automatically operate inside to meet just-in-time and agile processes. As per LogisticsIQ™ study, AMR market is expected to reach ~$14B mark by 2026 and is going to be the main contributor in retail warehouses due to high demand in e-commerce sector and its flexibility to deploy.

Human-Robot Collaboration

People often think of humans as actually a poor substitute for a robot, but in practice, these things are really difficult, and the assembly line worker aka operator involved in different activities in the warehouse is making a lot of judgements. And it turns out that when you take that person away, you end up with some problems that are hard to solve. Craftsmanship and robotics complement each other ideally here. The pairing of human and machine opens the door to countless opportunities in warehouses.

Here mobile robots can complement human intelligence to take over tasks that are redundant and doesn't require human attention. AMRs can be designed and programmed to perform any number of tasks — whether it's delivering products to a workstation or working alongside humans as they go about executing various order fulfilment tasks. Working together with people, robots can fulfil their designated purpose at different levels in the warehouse as assemble line and making lives better.

Sangeet Kumar

Co-founder & CEO, Addverb Technologies

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