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Robotics Continue to Take on a Larger Role in the Warehousing Environment

Tompkins tSort robotics sorter in order fulfillment operation

Robotics continue to take on a larger role in the warehousing environment, across the world. Traditional industrial, or fixed, robots –a mainstay in the automotive industry—haven’t had as strong of adoption for warehousing. Over the past few years, as vision technology has advanced, the adoption rate has been climbing. In parallel with this increased adoption, mobile robotics are transforming operations at an even higher rate.

Typically in warehousing, robots take on the jobs that human workers would rather avoid. In an era with a tough labor shortage, these systems can be a huge help when recruiting and retaining workers. From palletizing to picking and variations of each unique aspect of operations, robots can step in and do the repetitive and strenuous tasks.

Traditional systems with articulated arms, which can range from two-axis robots up to those with seven-axis, are generally used in palletizing applications. They save team members from lifting heavy loads and can accomplish moving full stacks of pallets much more efficiently than would a human employee. They might also pick up a box to move it from one spot to another, using a gripper attachment to do so. Other emerging use cases include piece picking, inducting (both ASRS and sorter), sorting, and decanting.

Gantries, a version of an industrial robot, can lend themselves to palletizing applications in warehousing. However, they’ve long been popular in automotive manufacturing to move tires/stacks of tires from one location to another, and when warehouses involve tire storage, they are useful tools.

As robots have evolved to include mobile units, they’re finding their way onto warehousing floors more frequently, and have different, and sometimes complementary, applications in this environment when compared with fixed robots. The two common forms of warehouse robotics include automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). The main difference in function between the two is that AGVs follow a fixed path, while AMRs—as the name implies—operate independently and can move all over a warehouse floor. Each has its strengths for applications on the floor.

AGVs and AMRs can operate collaboratively with their human counterparts. For instance, they might bring a load of cases to a station for picking. This saves employees from walking all over the facility, making better use of their time and abilities.

Alternatively, a warehouse might choose to deploy them to move materials from storage bins to sortation systems or integrate them with fixed picking arms. The possibilities are growing as the technology driving the robots becomes ever more sophisticated.

Many facilities worry about the safety of having mobile robots on the floor alongside humans, but today’s models often work with AI-enhanced vision, also known as computer vision, which allows them to identify and classify hazards and compute paths to avoid those hazards. The longer they operate on a warehousing floor, the better they become. Still, when considering mobile robots, it’s essential to work with a qualified partner to design define a business case and implement exactly how the robots will operate and improve business operations.

As the pace of technological innovation accelerates, the potential applications of robotics in warehousing are poised to expand exponentially. From collaborative robots (co-bots) that work alongside human workers on assembly lines to computer vision systems that facilitate tracking key metrics such as ergonomics and traffic patterns in sprawling warehouses, the possibilities are limited only by imagination and ingenuity.

Robotics are reshaping the landscape of warehousing, driving unprecedented levels of efficiency, productivity, and safety. By embracing this transformative technology and leveraging its capabilities to augment human labor, warehouses can navigate the complexities of modern supply chains with confidence and agility, positioning themselves for sustained success in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

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March 28, 2024