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The Next Generation of Dock Unloading

The Next Generation of Dock Unloading

   Matt Wicks

The Next Generation of Dock Unloading

Dock unloading has been ripe for automation for many years; few warehouse jobs are more arduous, repetitive and injury-prone. These jobs are notoriously difficult to fill and have some of the highest turnover rates in the industry.

Previous approaches have been held back by performance, integration and cost factors. Today, however, the newest advances in robot control systems, gripping technology, perception and dynamic, collision-free path planning are finally making an efficient solution available. Robots can now take on the difficult tasks of loading and unloading freight — meeting or even exceeding manual performance without modification to trailers or nearby workflows.

Matching technology with unloading

Finding the technology to automate unloading freight has been a longstanding challenge, mainly because of distribution center (DC) throughput requirements and a variety of package characteristics, including size, weight and type of container.

The industry has seen some attempts to implement automation, such as ergonomic assistance like a conveyor extending into a trailer, and operator-piloted systems that relieve physical burden. However, both of these approaches still require worker supervision throughout the process. This, in turn, fails to address the challenges operations have sourcing labor — a critical need in today’s competitive environment.

Other solutions have emerged that don’t require operator involvement, such as articulated robotic arm unloaders and curtain systems. But each comes with costly trade-offs. Articulated arm systems have speed, maximum size and load limitations, and are not a strong fit for all applications. Curtain systems bring a high risk of product damage and costly, difficult-to-maintain modifications to trailers that are especially challenging when trailer fleets are not under the same ownership.

These crucial flaws have hindered widespread adoption of existing unloading technologies. A truly effective automated solution requires high levels of independence and performance, while delivering the throughput, package care and labor savings necessary for strong return on investment.

Unloading technology finally comes of age

Combining multiple innovations with decades of material handling experience has led to the development of a next-generation robotic unloader, currently being refined in pilot programs. 

These robots from Honeywell Robotics are the first to benefit from a common universal control platform that combines improved vision and machine learning-based decision making with advanced motion planning. Known as the Honeywell Universal Robotics Controller (HURC), this cutting-edge robot “brain” has been designed and built specifically for dynamic, unstructured environments like DCs. With extremely rapid data collection and robust processing power, HURC makes it possible for robots to see better, think smarter, and act faster. 

By securely handling massive amounts of data in real time, HURC enables unprecedented levels of active perception as well as a reliable autonomy that requires fewer operator interventions, resulting in greater uptime and faster ROI. Cutting-edge recognition technology identifies products, packages, labels and more. At the same time, the robot senses the locations of objects and people to guide efficient grasping and enhance worker safety. 

These enhancements will allow the machines to unload trucks, trailers and shipping containers fully autonomously, while handling products with greater care.

To learn more about this breakthrough technology, see “The Future of Dock Unloading” in the latest edition of On The Move. You’ll discover how robotic unloaders will play a critical role in spreading the promise of lower costs, improved reliability, greater utilization and stronger productivity in the DC.
 

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