The word automation was first coined and used by Ford Motor Company then Vice President, Delmas Harder in 1948 when he commented that, “What we need is more automation.”
He realized that there was a need to improve material handling in-between the various production stages to compete in the market with companies like Chevrolet.
Why this is significant is because it was the first time anyone thought of automating a process in a manufacturing unit. This led to the creation of robots that are now used in the manufacturing plants, warehouses, to ease and quicken the processes.
Let’s dive into the history of how the robots came into existence.
History of robotics in warehouses
However, it was not until 1954 that George Dovel filed for a robotics patent when he created the first industrial robotic arm, Unimate.
This robot was capable of moving the materials around 12 feet away within the manufacturing unit. This also earned George Dovel the title – Grandfather of Robots.
It took until 1961 for a patent to be granted due to concerns about laborers losing their jobs. General Motors was the first company to make use of the first of these robot arms in manufacturing at their New Jersey plant in 1962.
Then came the Stanford Arm in 1969 created by Victor Scheinman. It was technically a first of its kind, electrically-powered, an automated robot arm that could move around accurately. The arm was powerful enough to assemble the Ford water pump by itself with optical and contact sensors.
This marked the beginning of a new era of using robots in the manufacturing process for achieving higher efficiency and improving lead time in the production of items.
By 1990, the use of robots started in households as well with the advent of Roomba robots developed by iRobot. Roomba was a first-generation vacuum cleaning robot that became a huge success.
Since then, there has been no looking back and the usage of robotics has come a long way in a short span of time.
In 2003, Kiva systems started creating AMR (Automated mobile robots) which were used in moving goods around warehouse and distribution centers using a conveyor system or by forklifts.
Kiva robots were so effective that Amazon bought the company itself in 2012 and now uses them across all their distribution centers.
Amazon is at the forefront of warehouse robotics development with 100,000 robots operating in their fulfillment centers across the globe.
Types of robots
As mentioned earlier, there was no looking back once the Roomba robot and Kiva robots were introduced and hugely successful in the market. Various types of robots came into existence that served various purposes.
However, for the warehouse, 5 major types of robots are used:
#1 Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV)
The Kiva robot that we are so familiar with is actually an Automated Guided Vehicle robot. This robot helps in transporting products and materials from one place to another by using magnetic stripes, sensors, or a track embedded in the warehouse floor. They are the best alternative to the manually driven forklifts and picking carts.
#2 Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR)
AGVs have developed a lot over the years and now they can function without magnetic stripes or sensors. These are known as Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) loaded with warehouse maps and the location of all the inventory stored in it.
AGVs also have safety scanners embedded in it such as 3D cameras, lidar, infrared, front and rear sensors, etc. which allow them to navigate without any mishaps following maps and the established routes within the warehouse. These are also known as self-driving forklifts.
#3 Cobots or collaborative robots
As the name suggests, these are robots that work collaboratively with human workers at the warehouse. However, these are quite efficient as they are semi-autonomous mobile robots that can move around a warehouse with their human pickers.
Usually, these cobots follow the human pickers so that they can drop picked items in the bins carried by these robots. This improves efficiency amongst warehouse workers and also reduces or eliminates the effort of physically carrying products.
Cobots have sensors so that they can identify any obstacle or boxes in their way and enable them to navigate carefully through the warehouse. Cobots are picker staff best friends as they can speed up their order fulfillment capabilities.
#4 Automated storage and retrieval systems
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are automated technologies used in warehouses for speedy storing and retrieving of goods. This system consists of multiple technological machines such as shuttles, cranes, carousels, vertical lift modules, unit loads, and mini loads.
Since all AS/RS are computer-controlled systems, they are integrated with the warehouse management system so that it can process order fulfillment as soon as orders are received. AS/RS systems are used for moving a high volume of loads from in and out of storage.
AS/RS systems save time and effort of picking staff since in this “Good to Person” order picking, the worker does not have to physically move from one place to another to pick items. A mini-load crane, shuttle or AMR retrieve the products as per order and deliver it directly to the worker for packing and shipping.
#5 Aerial drones
We have been fascinated with the idea of drones delivering packages to our doorstep ever since Amazon began this practice. Drones have greater capabilities and we still have not fully explored their usage.
Drones are already being used in warehouses for locating and tracking inventory. They make the work much easier, quicker and can reach any nook and corner easily. In addition, a drone can be easily integrated with your warehouse management system making it an effective technology for tracking inventory and also lifting lightweight products for easy picking and packing.
Drones are autonomous and customizable, and with their cameras and RFID, drones can easily scan products, do inventory checks, conduct tracking, and map inventory.
Benefits of using robots in the warehouse
“To be or not to be” is a challenge faced for the usage of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the manufacturing industry. Some are uncomfortable with the overall implications of AI taking over manual tasks, but recent statistics of intelligent automation capabilities are gaining attention, and therefore, cannot just be ignored.
“85% usage of intelligent automation will be seen in Supply Chain Management by 2021,” as per an IBM Report.
It is essential to stay globally competent in today’s dynamic market and using robots and artificial intelligence in the warehouse is the way to go! Here are a few of the benefits of using robots in the warehouse.
Reduces manual labor
Robots can take over work that is dangerous or time-consuming and thereby help warehouse workers to stay safe while working in coordination with robots.
Robots also help save time and effort by replacing manual scanning, picking and packing, and inventory counting. Also, it can be a very strenuous activity for the warehouse workers to keep on moving one rack to the other to fetch items ordered by customers. But autonomous mobile robots can perform these physical tasks and help workers to focus more on other order fulfillment tasks that require human intervention.
Improves warehouse accuracy and efficiency
Artificial intelligence helps in reducing human error and improves the customer experience which is the key to success for any business.
Since robots are customizable and can be programmed for a specific purpose, there are few instances of mistakes. Robots are not prone to human error and thus they eliminate wasted time and effort in redoing an incorrect task.
Accuracy in tasks like product scanning, picking, storing, and transporting products positively affects the overall performance of the warehouse. Warehouse robots work with precision and allow operators to automate the most mundane and laborious tasks.
Reduces warehouse costs
As per U.S. Census Bureau data, an average warehouse worker spends almost seven weeks per year in unnecessary motion within the warehouse. The costs of such futile activity costs the industry more than $4.3 billion USD in annual revenue.
Also, robots perform dangerous tasks efficiently in the warehouse, resulting in reduced costs spent on worker’s compensation for safety issues. There are fewer chances of workers getting injured since robots are performing the tasks instead.
The number of workers required in the warehouse also decreases as robots can fulfill most of the tasks with accuracy, creating less wastage.
Efficient picking capabilities
One of the foremost usages of a robotic arm was to move materials from one place to another up to 12 feet away. But with the technical advancements, the robotic arm has now been developed into an autonomous mobile robot that can travel far and wide in the warehouse and pick items automatically.
Some well-known companies like IAM Robotics, 6 RiverSystems, and GreyOrange, have introduced their powerful mobile robotic picking solutions in the market increasing warehouse efficiency requiring limited human resources.
These machines are programmed to travel established routes and they typically carry carts in which the products can be stored and transported to human workers.
We hope this article has helped you understand how robots are changing the supply chain within warehouses. At this point in time, robot technology is just scratching the surface. In the future, robots will prove to be much more useful and advanced as technology advances.
To learn more about Cin7 inventory and order management software and to find out how our warehouse management system can help automate your operations, request a demo here.