There’s no shortage of robotic material handling technology on the market today, and many organizations find themselves bombarded with solutions at trade shows and in other venues, enticing them toward automation, “Industry 4.0,” and the “smart” warehouse. The technological advances are impressive and the appeal great, leading many to seek out and implement robotic technology on a variety of levels.
But once a company decides to implement a particular robotic solution in its warehouse or distribution center—whether for picking, palletizing, automated truck unloading, or another task—it faces a critical next step: figuring out how to integrate that solution into its operation as part of a larger system. The technology will need to work with other equipment and infrastructure, including a longtime workhorse of the warehouse: conveyors.
Blending the tried-and-true with the up-and-coming is something conveyor manufacturers and systems integrators say is becoming a more important part of material handling system design.
“They must work hand in hand,” Tim Kraus, product manager for logistics and material handling at conveyor manufacturer Intralox, says of conveyors and robotics. “Even the most sophisticated lights-out order fulfillment designs have some supporting conveyor. The most cost-effective means to transport items—full cases, totes, individual items, packaged orders—in a consistent path is a simple conveyor.”
Kraus and other conveyor professionals say the convergence of robotics and conveyors can lead to increased productivity and quality while reducing error rates—factors that help improve a company’s competitiveness in today’s marketplace.
“If you look at all of those factors, the idea of integrating robots and conveyors has many benefits,” says Kevin Reader, director of business development and marketing for logistics solutions provider Knapp, pointing to software, design, and other technologies as keys to making it all work.
Conveyor manufacturers are finding many ways to integrate with the plethora of robotic solutions on the market. As one example, Kraus says Intralox is working with e-commerce and parcel end-users and their integrators to “optimize the presentation of orders” to a robot—that is, conveying items to a robotic picking arm or sorter in a way that maximizes efficiency, accuracy, and, ultimately, payback of the robotic investment, which can be considerable.
“If a conveying system can optimize the conveying to that robot, it’s a huge opportunity” for customers, Kraus explains. “In some cases, you can see where an articulated arm is picking up an item, and if our conveyors and sorters can help singulate an item, presenting one thing at a time instead of a pile of items, that makes it easier for the robot.”
Barry Miller, integrator and subsystems manager for material handling equipment maker Interroll, agrees and adds that controlling the precise movement of a box on a conveyor helps in this regard as well. Advanced conveyor control systems make this possible, giving the systems integrator or robotics provider the ability to communicate efficiently with all aspects of the conveyor system so that items can be placed in the same spot over and over again to accommodate the robotic solution in use.
“Robots thrive off of repetition,” Miller explains. “So, if we can stop that box in the same location every time and make it easy for the integrator to do, then we’ve provided a proven solution” that can maximize productivity and efficiency.
Palletizing is one of the most common applications in which conveyors and robotics converge, Miller adds, explaining that products are conveyed to a robot that then builds the pallets. In more complex applications, systems can feed cases of products to robots for picking and palletizing, and then convey the pallets farther down the line to forklift operators for truck loading. He says some integrators are blending conveyors and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in unique ways as well.
Kraus agrees and offers additional examples of ways in which the technologies could work together. For instance:
Simplicity of operation is also an important factor. Reader adds that integrating the various software and controls involved in a material handling system becomes even more complex when robotics enter the mix; despite that challenge, every system must be streamlined and simple in its execution.
“This is not a trivial integration,” Reader says of robotics and material handling in general. “In order to make it streamlined and simple, the core technology behind it is quite complex. But it needs to be simple to execute from a customer perspective. That’s the challenge.”
Such challenges are likely to intensify as robotics take on a larger role in the warehouse and DC, Miller adds.
“Over the last few years, robots have become a major player in automation—in collaboration with conveyors and conveyor equipment,” he says. “As we move into what everyone calls ‘Industry 4.0’ and automating more things, you see more and more robots. And those robots are no good without equipment to feed them.”