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The Evolution of Robotic Automation

Today’s distribution center (DC) operations struggle to keep pace with the speed and complexity of modern e-commerce, with volume increasing at around 25 percent each year. DCs need to keep pace with rising customer expectations for order speed and accuracy, even as growth pushes the limits of their capacities. 

The demand for labor is increasing significantly, outstripping the available labor pool by a ratio of six to one. Worse, 60 percent of supply chain jobs require skills that only 20 percent of the workforce possess. And if workers can be found, many jobs are repetitive and even dangerous — resulting in low morale, high turnover, retraining and the associated costs. These factors make the case for robotic automation stronger with each passing year. 

Smarter robots are critical to handling DC order volumes, speeds and complexities

A new generation of smarter, more versatile and affordable robots is helping distribution centers function at levels far higher than ever before. Armed with the latest advances in vision systems, sensors, grasping, mobility and other technologies, these new mechanical helpers are cost-effective methods to maximize DC productivity, from receiving to sortation to shipping.

Filling the labor gap through digital transformation 

Robotic automation in warehousing and distribution environments can be challenging. Products and packaging materials constantly change. Orders and logistics needs dictate the movement of products. Robots also need to “share the road” with people, both on foot and on equipment. Navigating these environments requires human-equivalent levels of awareness and flexibility. 

That complexity may be why manual operations are still the norm for many DCs today. But that business model is becoming increasingly unsustainable — and not just because of labor shortages. E-commerce requires more labor per item as DCs pick and pack more online purchases individually. Freight and parcel handling labor requirements are also on the rise, as more goods are being shipped directly to consumers’ homes.

The robots are here

The latest wave of automation, robotics address many of these challenges by providing support in the most labor-intensive DC areas and taking on the burdens of the most physically demanding and injury-prone jobs. Today’s DC robotic solutions include: 

  • Articulated arm loaders/unloaders. For trailers carrying stacked products of a consistent size, vehicle-mounted articulated arms do double duty by both loading and unloading the trailers quickly, with minimal operator supervision or intervention. There’s no need to change processes or add supporting equipment.
  • Mobile robots. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can transport loads up to 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds). These intelligent robots use superior vision and mapping technologies to navigate warehouse environments, requiring only a short integration period to learn their surroundings and avoid obstacles, ranging from people to fork truck tines.  
  • Robotic each picking. Artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled autonomous robots with new gripping and vision technologies augment human workforces in picking applications. Grasping objects with the dexterity comparable to a human hand, these robots automatically retrieve, sort and fulfill orders at more than 600 picks per robot per hour. Visual recognition enables the robots to pick from heterogenous or homogenous bins with little or no supervision. 
  • Robotic palletizing. Robots for placing products onto pallets are relatively easy to integrate into distribution systems, especially where product sizes and weights are known. Among the simplest automation systems, they fit into compact layouts and provide exceptional load identification and tracking accuracy.
  • Full-layer depalletizing. These systems can pull complete layers off single-SKU and limited-SKU pallets — often pulling 500 pounds per layer. This frees workers from one of the most arduous, repetitive and injury-prone jobs. Today’s full-layer depalletizing robots handle a wide variety of items, from cases to bags of variable-layer heights, sizes and weights, and easily adapt to packaging and labeling changes.

Significant new robotic advances 

Robotic unloading. Fully automated unloading of trucks, trailers and shipping containers relieves a major labor demand. New robotic unloaders from Honeywell Robotics use a vacuum arm and a conveyor sweep system to unload diverse case sizes and weights onto a take-away conveyor. No fleet modifications are needed, even in trucks designed without automation in mind. These are among the first robots to connect to the Honeywell Universal Robotic Controller (HURC), a cutting-edge “brain” that combines the latest sensor technology and processing power and state-of-the-art machine learning and AI.

Robotic sorter induction. Honeywell Robotics sorter induction systems can replace or supplement manual induction, boosting efficiency while freeing workers from monotonous jobs. Sorter induction robots handle a variety of package sizes and types, including polybags, jiffy bags and boxes, with automated label orientation and optimized sorter tray loading. And because the robots are designed for existing workflows and the typical products seen in postal and e-commerce applications, integration costs and technical risks are low.  

A collaboration for DC robotic automation 

Honeywell Intelligrated is applying its deep knowledge of logistics, distribution and materials handling alongside R&D expertise and industry collaborations with Carnegie Mellon University, Fetch Robotics and Soft Robotics to develop tomorrow’s robotic automation solutions for today’s DC challenges. 

Find more details on the evolution of robotic automation in this On The Move article.