Talk of automating a distribution center (DC) can mean different things to different people, but in the end, it’s all about making DC operations run more smoothly and efficiently. At its most basic level, material handling automation helps free employees from mundane, manual tasks and allows them to focus on value-adding work or jobs where only the human touch will do. This has become an increasingly important advantage in the labor-challenged post-pandemic supply chain, and one that is changing the look and feel of the distribution center.
A recent Gartner survey points to a growing supply chain trend toward “flexible” automation solutions in particular, predicting that three-quarters of large companies will have adopted some form of “smart” robots for warehouse and DC operations by 2026. These are advanced robots or robotic systems that use intelligence, guidance, or sensors to operate independently or with and around humans. Examples include autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), autonomous forklifts, and similar solutions that require little or no infrastructure investment. Essentially, they’re not bolted to the floor, as traditional systems are.
Many companies are already testing the waters, however, and are racking up labor-savings and productivity improvements as they go. Here are two ways flexible robotics are changing the look and feel of the DC.
Automation strategies are having a considerable effect on the logistics real estate market, both in terms of facility design and location. With respect to design, today’s DCs require increased power capacity and higher-speed internet connections to power systems and charge equipment—and some may even require extra space to store charging equipment or higher ceilings to accommodate automated vertical storage systems, vehicles, and other types of machinery, according to Ben Harris, senior managing director of the logistics and industrial team for commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.
Research from real estate services provider Savills Industrial Practice Group, released late last year, highlights those trends as well. The company said it expects more facilities to be retrofitted or designed to accommodate investments in automated technologies in 2022. The report noted that the average clear height for large warehouses has already increased by 23% to 37 feet since 2000, and that heights will grow as advances in robotics allow tenants to take greater advantage of vertical storage.
When it comes to location, flexible robotic solutions are giving companies a wider playing field for developing their distribution networks.
“Automation is enabling greater choice” in where DCs can be located, Harris explains. “Most types of automation can be incorporated into any modern facility we have, [but] the automation solutions with the highest chance of adoption are those that are more flexible, more mobile, and less tied to the physical characteristics of the buildings than they were in the past.”
As an example, Harris says flexible, smart automation has allowed some companies to expand their DC operations into regions with limited labor pools by reducing their reliance on people—robot-assisted picking is one example. This can be helpful for companies looking to locate distribution and fulfillment operations in important, but less densely populated, markets, for one.
“Before, the labor situation [in some regions] could be so bad that a company couldn’t consider a particular location for a warehouse or distribution center. But automation addresses that problem for some,” he says. “It allows some companies to enter markets they never thought possible.”
On the flip side, the use of AMRs and similar labor-saving devices can open up opportunities in urban markets where labor is more plentiful but competition for talent is stiff and employees are expensive—such as New York City. The automation advantage can be especially helpful for e-commerce businesses looking to improve their final-mile logistics operations.
“Automation is allowing some companies to unlock infill [sites located in mostly built-out markets] in urban locations where labor costs have been major hurdles,” Harris adds. “Near metro environments, we’re seeing even more automation, because the need for speed is that much higher within those geographies. Additionally, the options for labor become much more constrained; you’re competing with totally different industries [for talent] in those markets.”
Flexible automation is also pushing creative boundaries in the DC, as technology providers and customers work together to find new and unique applications or “use cases” for technology—especially robots.
“Feedback we hear from customers is ‘We don’t just want the robot; we want a solution,’” says Stefan Nusser, senior director of robotics automation for Zebra Technologies, which develops autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and collaborative robots for industrial applications. Increasingly, such solutions are being driven from within, he adds. “When you go into a site, you’ll see many opportunities for robots. Often, customers will say ‘Isn’t this cool; look at what we made them do.’ And that kind of thing happens organically, from the bottom up.”
A case in point: Zebra Technologies’ Fetch Robotics autonomous recycling removal solution, which was developed in conjunction with a third-party logistics service provider (3PL) that had adopted Fetch AMRs to help streamline operations in one of its DCs. [Fetch Robotics became part of Zebra Technologies in a 2021 acquisition.] The 3PL had a problem that was piling up: Empty boxes and excess packing material were accumulating in aisles and at the ends of pick stations faster than employees could safely transport them to a separate recycling area within the DC. Looking to clear floorspace for both workers and the robots moving throughout the facility, the employees programmed the AMRs to pick up the boxes and packing material and take it to the recycling area—a task that was previously done manually.
“We have a robot that, essentially, has the ability to move a cart from one location to another,” Nusser says, explaining that the employees put collection bins on top of the AMR-compatible carts, set them up at a handful of collection points throughout the DC, and then used the accompanying AMR software to tell the robots what to do. “Every half hour, the robot grabs [the carts] and brings them to the recycling area, then brings them back.”
The easy-to-configure software allows employees to change the frequency of removal, if needed, as well as add locations or containers. What used to require multiple employees doing nothing but recycling removal all day is now automated, freeing up those workers for more value-adding work.
“In a way, it’s the perfect solution,” Nusser says, adding that the process has opened the floodgates of ingenuity, as associates think of ways to apply the labor-saving technology to other tasks as well. “Many times, what you do with the AMR is just as hard a question to answer as how do you make the technology work. For [the customer], this is now another tool in their toolbox.”
A simple, tech-driven tool that has changed the way the DC works, for the better.
The Gartner survey likewise points to the adaptive nature of such tools, noting that other common uses for flexible robots include transporting pallets of goods, delivering items to a person, or carrying out piece-picking tasks. Those applications will only increase, contributing to an even more dynamic DC.
“They [flexible robots] can more readily and inexpensively be implemented, and can be easily scaled to better manage extremes in peaks and troughs of demand,” according to the Gartner report. “Because of the adaptive nature of intralogistics smart robots, companies can pilot use cases for low, upfront investment and continue to test new and varying use cases as they become more familiar with the technologies.”