Robotic technology and automation are having a transformational impact on warehouse operations.
Earlier generations of robots used to be quite bulky and extremely limited in what they could do. However, the technology has come a long way over the years, and robots have gradually become a common sight in many aspects of our society, ranging from factories and farms to hotels and restaurants. But there’s hardly a sector where this impact has been felt more than in warehouses.
Characterized primarily by simple, repetitive tasks, warehouse work has always been one of the prime candidates for increased automation. And it seems that we’re steadily heading in that direction, with more and more companies automating their operations and giving robots an increasingly prominent role in their warehouses. According to a recent report published by Hexa Research, the global warehouse robotics market was valued at $3.47bn in 2017 and is expected to reach $6bn by 2025.
Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, is one of the leaders when it comes to the adoption of robotic technology and automation. It all began with the acquisition of the warehouse robotics company Kiva Systems in 2012, and the retail giant hasn’t looked back since. Today, Amazon operates 110 warehouses, 45 sorting centers, and 50 delivery stations across the United States, where a growing number of jobs are succumbing to automation. The company’s warehouses are now populated by more than 100,000 robots that perform a wide variety of tasks, such as raising pallets of goods to upper levels, or carrying shelves filled with merchandise to human workers.
However, even though Amazon is looking to automate as many jobs as possible, full automation doesn’t seem to be in the cards, at least not in the near future. And that’s good news for the 125,000 warehouse workers employed by the company in the U.S. According to Scott Anderson, director of Amazon Robotics Fulfillment, the company is at least 10 years away from launching fully automated warehouses, with humans still much better suited for certain tasks. “In the current form, the technology is very limited. The technology is very far from the fully automated workstation that we would need,” Anderson says.
The British supermarket Ocado is another big proponent of automation, which is best exemplified by its new, highly automated warehouse located on the outskirts of Andover, England. More than a thousand cube-shaped robots roam the floor of the massive structure, performing a variety of simple tasks, such as lifting, moving, and sorting goods. Once fully operational, the warehouse will be able to process 3.5 million items or around 65,000 orders per week.
All items in the warehouse are stored in crates, which are arranged in huge stacks that can be up to 17 boxes high. The position of items in a stack is decided algorithmically, placing more frequently accessed items near the top. When a customer places an order, a robot approaches the crate that contains the required items and uses a set of claws to grab the crate and pull it into its central cavity. The crate is then dropped down a vertical chute to a picking station, where a human employee takes the items required to fill the customer’s order and places them into another crate, which is then conveyed to the delivery bay.
The robots’ actions are coordinated by a central computer. When fulfilling a larger order, several robots can team up to help each other retrieve the required items more quickly, completing the process that would usually take hours in traditional warehouses in a matter of minutes. Despite Ocado’s increased reliance on robots, humans still occupy a number of important roles in the warehouse. In addition to manning picking stations, they also unpack bulk deliveries that arrive in Andover every day, and move pallets around the warehouse on forklifts.
The most advanced example, and possibly the best indication of what the warehouse of the future will look like comes from China, where the e-commerce giant JD.com recently opened the world’s first fully automated warehouse. Situated in Shanghai, the 40,000-square-meter facility is operated entirely by robots, which have even taken over tasks that used to be performed almost exclusively by humans, such as packing, lifting, and transporting packages to loading docks.
The warehouse does employ five human workers as well, but their only role is to oversee and service the robots, and they’re not involved in any warehouse operations. The company hopes it will be able to automate even their roles sometime in the future. JD.com currently employs approximately 160,000 people, and the plan is to eventually reduce the number to just under 8,000. Developed by a Tokyo-based startup called MUJIN, the robots can process around 200,000 packages per day and could soon be rolled out in the company’s other warehouses in China, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Robotic technology has progressed in leaps and bounds in recent years, going from massive contraptions with extremely limited abilities to highly sophisticated pieces of machinery capable of performing increasingly complex tasks. Its impact has been felt across industries, with warehouse jobs proving to be among those most susceptible to automation. It remains to be seen whether the warehouse of the future will be fully automated, but there’s no doubt that robots will play an increasingly prominent role in this sector, reducing humans to a supporting role.
Richard van Hooijdonk is an international keynote speaker, trend watcher and futurist.