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Ready for the DC: Rosie the Robot 2.0

   Matt Wicks

Ready for the DC: Rosie the Robot 2.0

Increasingly scarce labor and explosive e-commerce growth has distribution centers scrambling to meet demand. In fact, while industry growth outpaces the labor pool by a ratio of 6:1, manual operation is the norm for 80 percent of distribution centers (DCs).

In our most recent On The Move webinar, I discussed the significant labor challenges facing distribution centers and how they can use robotics to make the most efficient use of available labor. We started by counting the number of manual touches in various distribution and fulfillment processes. They add up FAST!

How fast? Try four touches before products are even available for online ordering. That number balloons to 12 before items are even out for delivery, before finally swelling to 21 manual touches before final delivery to the customer’s doorstep.

So many manual touches require major labor requirements. But the industry is struggling to find employees to fill warehouse jobs, with 600,000 going unfilled in 2017. These conditions create intense competition for a limited workforce, and that means turnover is high – 36 percent for warehouse workers.

With those challenges in mind, it should come as no surprise that webinar attendees said labor saving / availability is their top consideration when evaluating robotics for their warehouse.

Rosie to the rescue

What if there was a robotic solution capable of solving all our contemporary labor problems? Luckily, there is! Only, the catch is she lives in the cartoon world of the Jetsons.

But while Rosie herself is reserved for the fictional world, thanks to recent robotics advances, the enabling technologies that make her such an effective domestic helper are very much a part of our real-world. Unlike more traditional robotic applications in manufacturing, the DC is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get! These advances in robotics enable solutions to handle dynamic, unstructured environments of the DC, and the variety they hold.

  • Eyes: Sensor and vision technology provide data to fuel the robot’s brain and provide the foundation for decision making
  • Brains: The computational power enables robots to work in the dynamic, unstructured environments of the DC
  • Hands: Advanced gripping technology enables reliable handling and manipulation of a variety of items commonly found in the DC
  • Feet: Today’s warehouse robots don’t have feet but their mobility do enable them to move around the DC, understanding their environment and adjusting routes in real time

Many of the applications currently in development are not new ideas, but are just now possible thanks to these advances in technology.

  • Robotic palletizing: Place cases or totes onto pallets, carts, vehicles or floors of container trucks
  • Robotic depalletizing: Remove items from a pallet, cart or other container
  • Loading or unloading: Load or remove items from a truck, trailer or shipping container on the dock
  • Each handling: Move individual items for picking, packing or other tasks
  • Transportation: Move goods from point-to-point to fuel distribution processes

Of all robotic applications introduced in the webinar, the most attendees, 38 percent, see the biggest value for robotics in order picking. We closed by introducing a set of important considerations for operations interested in deploying robotics. These served to set expectations on how well-developed certain applications are, the process for implementation and what to look for when screening vendors for robotic solutions.

To learn more about making robotics a reality in your DC, click here to view the webinar in its entirety.

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