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 The time is now: Why DCs are primed for big robotics growth

The Time Is Now: Why DCs Are Primed for Big Robotics Growth

Matt Wicks

The Time Is Now: Why DCs Are Primed for Big Robotics Growth

The first in a multi-part series, this blog focuses on factors that drive demand in distribution centers for more automation (i.e. labor challenges, e-commerce growth) and how robotics have evolved to offer greater capability.

We’re in the midst a “robotics revolution.” 

However, many distribution centers (DCs) still operate without robotics. Currently, around 80 percent of warehouses are manually operated, meaning they have no automation support, according to a recent DHL Trend research report. However, that is about to change as a tight labor market driven by the uptick in e-commerce has created a situation ripe for automation.

Online retail in the U.S. grew faster in 2017 than it has since 2011, representing 13 percent of total retail sales and 49 percent of the growth, according to a report by the U.S. Commerce Department. Analysts predict that global e-commerce sales will double by 2021, reaching a staggering $4.5 trillion annually.

The rise in demand however, has come with a wave of challenges for most DCs. For one, industry growth is quickly outpacing the labor pool. A recent report shows that the projected demand for warehouse and distribution workers in 2018-19 exceeds the industry’s job growth for the first time since 2013, an acceleration that reflects the growing volume of e-commerce sales.

Meanwhile, customers demand a seamless shopping experience: one-day delivery, lower prices and maximum convenience. The culmination of rising consumer expectations, a shrinking labor pool and high order volumes are rapidly driving demand for more automation in distribution centers. 

A new generation

Traditionally, industrial robots have not thrived in dynamic, unstructured environments like the DC. The high volume of varied and complicated tasks clash with the predictable, repetitive tasks that industrial robots have previously handled. When product sizes and weights start varying, as they often do in today’s e-retail environment, robots can struggle to handle the variety. 

But all that’s changing with a new generation of smart robotics. Start with the more adaptable, collaborative robotic solutions known as “cobots.” Instead of being sequestered behind a fence, these are designed to work right alongside of humans, handling transportation, storage and retrieval tasks, and more to augment labor in processes like order fulfillment. 

Advances in technology – specifically perception, processing power and gripping – are key enablers for expanding robotic capabilities for the DC. For instance, advances in 3D vision technology have improved unloading and picking tasks. A robot can view different products in a container, determine the optimal loading or unloading sequence and execute. Similarly, in picking applications, the robot can distinguish products from each other and sort them accordingly, potentially freeing up much-needed labor resources. 

Machine learning is a hot topic that does have substance to live up to the hype. Previously, introducing a new product to a robot involved some sort of manual programming intervention to “teach” the robot to handle it. However, machine learning allows the robot to learn on its own – rather than requiring outside programming to handle a new item, the robot compares characteristics of the new item with previous ones it has picked to determine the best course of action.

Altogether, the full spectrum of robotics technology offers tremendous potential for the DC –  and it’s just getting started. New smart robotic technology is constantly expanding and evolving to enable next-generation efficiencies. We may not be able to predict just how robotics will shape the DC in the next five to 10 years, but with budding startup and academic relationships, we’re well positioned to keep customers on the cutting edge while also maintaining the reliability and performance they’ve come to expect.