Fully autonomous warehouses are the future

What Is Warehouse Automation?

Warehouse automation is the process of automating the movement of inventory into, within, and out of warehouses to customers with minimal human assistance. As part of an automation project, a business can eliminate labor-intensive duties that involve repetitive physical work and manual data entry and analysis.

For example, a warehouse worker may load an autonomous mobile robot with heavy packages. The robot moves the inventory from one end of the warehouse to the shipping zone and software records the movement of that inventory, keeping all records current. These robots improve the efficiency, speed, reliability and accuracy of this task.

Rather than rely on magnetic strips or tracks, AMRs use sensors and maps to interpret the environment, navigate through the warehouse floor and detect/avoid obstacles.

AMRs can perform several warehouse and order fulfillment functions, including executing pick strategies, transporting goods and materials and guiding/helping associates as they perform their tasks. Let’s discuss a few of the ways autonomous mobile robots can help transform warehouse operations.

  1. Reduce walking time

In traditional warehouses, associates must walk to the picking area, identify and retrieve the SKU(s) to be picked and then walk back to sorting stations. This walking back and forth increases the overall time spent on picking tasks.

AMRs, especially collaborative robots, boost productivity (by up to 2-3x) in order fulfillment operations by automating the travel between the area where orders are allocated to a cart and the inventory picking area and the travel between the end of a picking cycle and sorting stations or packing and shipping areas.

AMRs also help warehouse associates pick items for multiple orders at the same, thus reducing the number of trips. Not only does this reduce overall travel time through the warehouse, but it also reduces physical/mental fatigue thus leading to fewer mistakes and accidents. AMRs can determine and follow optimized picking routes and are particularly valuable in facilitating zone and pick-and-pass picking methodologies.

  1. Directing workflows to improve efficiency

AMRs are incredibly versatile. Not only can they speed up the picking process by handling the tedious task of moving products around, but some collaborative robots guide associates through tasks by navigating to inventory locations, displaying the items and quantities to pick, directing workflows and keeping associates on task to improve the accuracy and efficiency of order fulfillment operations. They prioritize work and group similar tasks to increase overall productivity and reduce the time taken to fulfill orders while also reducing human error.

  1. Augmenting human labor

Rather than traveling through the warehouse and carrying items along as they pick, human workers can focus on other high-value tasks and allow AMRs to move products between workers and stations. This eases the physical strain on human workers since they no longer have to transport orders from one area to the next.

Also, AMRs work alongside human associates and help to keep them on task. They can be programmed to travel optimal routes for the assignment, thus setting the walking pace for associates and simultaneously guiding them on the best way to complete a set of tasks.

AMRs can be designed and programmed to perform any number of tasks — whether it’s delivering products to a workstation or working alongside humans as they go about executing various order fulfillment tasks. Others are designed to handle material transfers from storage bins to sorting stations or integrate with picking arms to automate your preferred pick strategy.

What does the future hold?

Amazon is making huge steps towards the fully autonomous warehouse. The future of Amazon’s logistics network will undoubtedly involve artificial intelligence and robotics, but it’s an open question at what point AI-powered machines will be doing a majority of the work. According to Scott Anderson, the company’s director of robotics fulfillment, the point at which an Amazon warehouse is fully, end-to-end automated is at least 10 years away.

As it stands today, robots in the workforce are proficient mostly at specific, repeatable tasks for which they are precisely programmed. To get the robot to do something else takes expensive, time-consuming reprogramming. And robots that can perform multiple different tasks and operate in dynamic environments that require the robot see and understand its surroundings are still firmly in the realm of research and experimental trials. Even the simple process of identifying an object and picking it up without having been trained on that object before requires a series of complex, sophisticated software and hardware that does not yet exist in commercial fashion.