Warehouse operators are increasingly turning to robotics and automation to speed and improve operations—especially when it comes to the labor-intensive, time-consuming process of picking. The end game is clear: cut the amount of time workers spend walking down warehouse aisles, reduce the chance of human error, and address the physical limitations and potential for worker injury inherent in manual picking processes.
To that end, robotic technology is being applied in myriad ways to help companies speed picking and get orders out the door faster and more accurately. And it’s happening everywhere. More than half a million industrial robots were installed worldwide in 2021, a 31% increase over 2020 and a 22% increase over the pre-pandemic high recorded in 2018, according to an October 2022 report from the International Federation of Robotics. Those installations bring the total number of robots in action around the world to roughly 3.5 million.
Case-handling robots, robotic picking arms, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), and robotic shuttles are just a few examples of what you can find in action on warehouse floors these days. Here’s a look at two recent projects that have used robotics to optimize the picking process.
Health-care company Sinocare, which manufactures blood glucose meters, recently teamed up with Hai Robotics to install autonomous case-handling robot (ACR) systems in its Changsha, China, warehouse. Sinocare was looking for a way to improve both inbound and outbound storage of semifinished products at the facility, speed throughput, and integrate warehouse operations into its larger manufacturing execution system (MES). The ACR solution accomplished all of those goals, replacing Sinocare’s manual warehouse fulfillment processes with a robotic one.
The system essentially automates the storage and handling of totes containing Sinocare’s semifinished products. It incorporates double-deep storage racking to maximize space, ACRs for storing and retrieving the totes, and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) for moving the semifinished goods to a production line.
It works like this: When inbound goods are received, a robotic arm grabs the loaded totes and places them on a conveyor belt. The ACRs then retrieve the totes and deliver them to the appropriate locations on shelves in the high-density storage area. When the goods are needed for orders, an ACR retrieves the tote and transports it to a temporary storage shelf. An AGV then picks up the tote and brings it to workers on a production line. The system is controlled by Hai Robotics’ software, which is integrated into Sinocare’s MES.
Since implementing the system, Sinocare has increased its storage capacity by about 60% (to 12,000 totes from 7,500) and inbound efficiency by 33%, according to both companies. Perhaps most importantly, the manufacturer has reduced labor costs by 67% while also creating a better environment for workers—who can now track and manage the system via a technology dashboard without the strenuous work of manually picking and moving products throughout the facility.
This past summer, European logistics services provider Groupe Blondel deployed a goods-to-person robotics system at its Rochefort, France, facility to support steadily growing order volumes for one of its customers, the aircraft manufacturer and aerospace giant Airbus.
Groupe Blondel provides just-in-time picking of a wide variety of parts for Airbus, serving as an interface between supplier deliveries and Airbus’ production workstations at a nearby manufacturing facility. Last year, Airbus announced plans to increase global production to nearly 1,000 aircraft annually by 2025—the company was on track to deliver nearly 700 last year—so Groupe Blondel decided to implement a robotic solution from French warehouse automation company Scallog to handle the increased demand.
The system consists of small autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)—Scallog calls them “Boby” bots—and mobile shelving, all of which can be scaled up or down to meet shifting demand. The robots are programmed to move orders directly to workers by traveling through the warehouse to the correct shelf of products, positioning themselves under the shelf, and then transporting the shelf to a picking station, where workers fill orders using a pick-to-light process—a paperless system that uses lights to indicate which items to retrieve from the shelves. The goods-to-person system is housed in a new, dedicated 7,500-square-foot warehouse that features two picking stations, six Boby robots, and 160 shelf units to accommodate 8,000 to 10,000 different parts—about half of the facility’s total parts inventory. The new facility is expected to handle 50% of the Rochefort site’s picking operations. It will ramp up to absorb 100% of picking over time in tandem with rising production speeds, according to Groupe Blondel.
The logistics services provider expects the solution to yield a threefold improvement in productivity in Rochefort, a 30% increase in storage space, and a drastic reduction in picking errors—thanks largely to the pick-to-light system, which makes picking both faster and more accurate. The solution is also serving as a precursor to more robotics and automation companywide, according to company leaders.
“Deploying the Scallog solution at the Rochefort site is proving to be a pilot project for automation with the company,” Christian Debucquet, director of Groupe Blondel’s industry business unit for western France, said in a statement describing the project. He added that the company planned to replicate the project at other facilities, starting late last year. “In the future, we expect that Scallog robotics will play a major role in our group for handling ever-larger picking volumes across every business sector.”Those plans align with projections from the International Federation of Robotics’ October report, which forecast a nearly 10% increase in robot installations worldwide in 2022. And although installations are expected to slow as the market catches up with pandemic-related demand, average annual growth rates will remain in the mid- to upper-single-digit range over the next three years, according to the group’s forecast.
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