A near full-employment economy is making it difficult to find warehouse help and driving more companies toward automated solutions that can ease the labor crunch and speed operations throughout the facility. Such solutions are becoming increasingly common for storing and retrieving inventory as well as picking and packing orders, but there’s one area of the warehouse where automated equipment is still pretty scarce: the loading dock.
The main reason? An inconsistent environment. Trucks and trailers come in different shapes and sizes, and their contents often vary in weight, shape, and size as well. On top of that, items may have been loaded inconsistently, making it even more difficult to locate and extract specific boxes or pallets. It’s tough to apply machine-based solutions in such a variable environment, according to Tim Criswell, senior vice president of innovation and technology development for Daifuku Wynright Corp., which makes and installs material handling solutions, including robotic truck loading and unloading equipment.
“When you’re trying to automate [operations in] trailers specifically, there’s much more variety in the location of the products you’re trying to move and [in] their size and shape and position within the trailer,” Criswell says, explaining the difficulty of developing technology that can grasp and move a variety of items without damaging articles around them or bumping into trailer walls, for instance. “All those things are easy for a human to do, [but it’s] more challenging to automate that process.”
Easy for humans to do, yes, but not so enjoyable in practice. Loading or unloading hundreds of heavy boxes, often in extreme temperatures, makes the loading dock an area of high employee turnover for many operations—and a prime driver of what Criswell and others describe as a steadily growing interest in robotic truck loading and unloading solutions. DC Velocity asked industry experts to weigh in on where the technology stands today and what may be holding it back from widespread adoption. They identified three key challenges.
CHALLENGE #1: VARIETY
The deployment of automated truck loading and unloading equipment remains fairly limited, largely because of the need to accommodate a wide variety of items in a changing environment. As Criswell explains, the technology thus far has been best suited to operations that handle a high volume of a limited number of stock-keeping units (SKUs), where the items are loaded on pallets or in similarly sized cases and boxes. The most common solutions involve a robotic arm and conveyor operating inside the trailer. In loading applications, boxes and cases are fed into the trailer on the conveyor; a robotic arm at the end of the conveyor picks up the boxes individually and stacks them systematically from back to front. Unloading works much the same way, with a robotic arm picking up individual cases and/or boxes and depositing them on an outbound conveyor. Solutions are customized to meet specific needs and loading/unloading environments.
The method works well for high-volume operations than can justify the steep cost of the technology—including cargo container import operations, which are pretty much the “sweet spot,” Criswell says—but not so well in applications that call for unloading a large variety of SKUs. That’s why today’s challenge in developing truck loading and unloading solutions lies in refining the technology to create an off-the-shelf version that can handle a more diverse product mix. The key to that—especially for unloading applications—is utilizing today’s 3D vision technology, which allows engineers to program equipment that can “see” into the trailer and adjust its grasping and retrieval mechanisms to fit the specific application.
CHALLENGE #2: FRAGILITY
Companies are beginning to make headway on new loading and unloading methods that can address the varied conditions on the loading dock. One of the newest trends involves technology that loads and unloads boxes quickly, though not necessarily gently. In unloading applications, for example, such solutions have a robotic arm that incorporates vacuum technology that can quickly “grab and toss” items onto an outbound conveyor.
The process increases the number and variety of items a system can handle and boosts throughput, allowing the technology to be applied to more unloading situations and making the economics more attractive to customers, Criswell explains. But it’s hardly a universal solution. While such systems work well in operations that handle relatively sturdy items—including parcel environments, where robust packaging makes it possible to grab and toss items—they’re not well suited to operations that handle fragile products, like cases of wine or boxes of glassware.
“The challenge is that it can damage products because you’re not identifying them and being careful to pick up a case at a time,” Criswell says. “You’re grabbing what you can and letting it fall, so, depending on the product, there’s a possibility of damage.”
Such challenges illustrate the difficulty—though not the impossibility—of applying robotic automation to the loading dock, adds Joe Zoghzoghy, chief technology officer for Bastian Solutions, a material handling systems integrator that also develops robotic truck loading and unloading equipment.
“[Robotic loading and unloading] is not a solution that you can provide right away to customers because it’s a very complicated setup,” he says, emphasizing the need to tailor solutions to different clients and their varying requirements. “[But] a lot of people are trying to figure it out and get it to a point where it can be scaled up. … There are a lot of challenges, but it’s only a matter of time.”
The fast pace of advancing technology is helping to move the process forward. As technological capabilities expand and costs come down, designers and engineers have a wider variety of tools at their disposal and can create more flexible, affordable solutions, Zoghzoghy adds.
CHALLENGE #3: ROI
As Zoghzoghy notes, cost still remains the biggest obstacle to widespread adoption of automated truck loading and unloading solutions. Although implementation costs can vary widely depending on a company’s needs, experts warn that the outlay can be considerable. Nonetheless, demand for such solutions is only going to increase.
Statistics on the warehouse automation market in general bear this out, with some projections showing the overall market for automation will more than double by 2025—reaching $27 billion compared with $13 billion in 2018. What’s more, the market for collaborative robots—those that work alongside humans—is set to increase to $5.6 billion in 2027 from $550 million in 2018, according to research firm Interact Analysis, which says the majority of that growth will be driven by the logistics sector. Today, material handling, assembly, and pick-and-place applications of all kinds account for about three-quarters of the collaborative robot market, the company said in a 2019 report.
It only makes sense that the loading dock will eventually see its fair share of that investment.
“The trend is that technology is getting better and more cost-effective, the labor shortage is making demand from customers greater, and at some point, those lines cross and the idea is that it becomes more broadly used in the market,” Criswell says.
“I definitely see this type of robotic solution becoming more common on the [loading] dock over the next few years. But I don’t think it will be overnight; it will be a process,” he says. “A lot of people are excited to see this type of technology within their hands, and we are working hard to get it out there.”