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25.03.2021

Implementing technology to conquer retail and e-commerce complexity – part 2: robotics and automation

In our last blog, “Implementing technology to conquer retail and e-commerce complexity – part 1: voice-directed work”, we addressed the challenges that retail and e-commerce businesses are facing, especially while adopting an omnichannel approach that allows customers a wider choice of how to place, fulfill and receive their order.

 

Challenges we mentioned were not only seasonal peaks but also associated issues when it comes to labor, SKU proliferation and returns. In this context, we introduced you to voice-directed work, which can alleviate the pressures and lead to significant benefits in terms of productivity and accuracy gains as well as the reduction of onboarding time.

In this blog, we will present you another solution which can work hand-in-hand with voice-directed work: robotics and automation.

The technology solution to tackle those challenges – pt.2

Robotics and automation

Warehouse automation is using robots, autonomous vehicles and other specialized machinery to fill some of the more labor-intensive functions in a warehouse, such as:

  • “Walking” to different picking points 
  • Pushing carts 
  • Finding the correct pick path 
  • Picking up heavy items 

In many cases, automation can eliminate or significantly reduce these tasks, leading to gains in: 

  • Efficiency
  • Employee safety
  • Productivity

Different types of robots/automation on a smaller scale

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs): These “cobots” are moving and working with people together on the warehouse floor. These take many forms, and enable many methods, including swarming, “follow the bot”, and “goods to person.”

Example: A fleet of robots operate in the picking aisles and navigate workers to the correct pick locations, where the person performs the pick. The robot then moves on to the next pick location while the person moves on to the next robot. This method keeps the person picking while the robot handles the movements of the material through the process.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs): These are automated guided vehicles, such as forklift trucks or other forms of vehicle. These types of automated vehicles rely upon some form of guidance mechanism to direct their navigation.

Example: Instead of having team members walking up and down long aisles
continuously, the robots bring the necessary rack to them – a system used by Amazon.

Piece picking robots

These are robotic arms equipped with sophisticated intelligence, vision, and “grippers”. They are built to grab, move and manipulate the wide range of products handled in a picking operation.

Example: Instead of having a person stand at a picking station, batch-picked items come to the robotic picking arm in a tote. The arm then picks the items and places them in the appropriate place for the next step in the process.

How does automation through robotics address these challenges?

Labor shortages: Humans on the warehouse floor bring most value in detailed and careful handling of products rather than from moving products on the warehouse floor. Warehouse robots take over the majority of the movement, meaning workers can take over the more valuable tasks. This is especially essential during peak season. 

Cost management: Robots not only ensure that workers are more productive, removing non-value-added activities, they are also incredibly flexible in terms of costs. The purchase or hire of robots can be adjusted to your business’ needs – either on a permanent basis or solely when needed. They come with the knowledge necessary to do the tasks at hand and can be stored or even returned when not in use.

“Slotting” and storage: As mentioned above, robots take on the majority of movements in the warehouse. Big shifts of products lines that are no longer required to be close to the dispatch area can be relocated by AMRs rather than people. Plus, if AMRs bring goods to the people, walkways can be made narrower, as there’s no need for employees to walk between the shelves. This means more space can be dedicated to storing unsold products, ready for the next peak.

Returns: Autonomous mobile robots bring the returned products to the workers at their tables, and either reshelve or scrap according to the outcome of the inspection. They can also take inspected products back to the shelves in the replenishment and put-away processes. 

Robotic picking arms can be adapted to pick and sort returned items onto a conveyor belt, which will then move the returned item back to its determined location. The arm will pick the item and scan it, and the scan will then dictate where the robot will place it.

Plus, less space required for shelving also means there is more space in the warehouse for processing returns more effectively.

Combining voice-directed work and robotics

Voice and robotics are natural partners in terms of their co-operative benefits, particularly where the challenges posed by omnichannel fulfillment are concerned.

One of the reasons voice is effective is that people are generally better at receiving instructions aurally – i.e. by hearing them. Robots, on the other hand, currently require visual and manual engagement. As we move forward, the benefits of the two could be integrated to achieve even bigger productivity and efficiency gains when dealing with both seasonal peaks and returns.

It is widely believed that voice is both the safest and the most productive way for your team to operate. As it stands, most warehouse robots still require engagement through a screen interface. However, there is now an opportunity to use voice instead.

For example:

  • The worker could “take the reins” and speak directly to AMRs, calling them over – and the goods they carry – by using their voices.
  • AGVs could also be assigned to a voice-directed worker, to help them with product delivery, retrieval, or placement on high-bay racks.

The future of retail and ecommerce

Voice and robotics can both work effectively together or separately to tackle retail, e-commerce and omnichannel fulfillment challenges. But there is more to come in terms of innovative tech. Recognizing the importance of the human element, and their individual and specific skills, plays into the use of combined solutions. New technologies will likely incorporate how people interact with the processes and the robots intended to help them.

Lastly, it is certain that the world, and how it consumes, is changing at an alarming rate. That means that only the most flexible and adaptable supply chain processes will be able to keep up with the demands created by the inevitable advance of omnichannel – be that in how it impacts seasonal peaks, returns or any other challenge.

Related solutions

Voice, Vision & Mobility

Körber’s voice, vision and mobility solutions will help you to reengineer and improve your processes while optimizing business efficiency.

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Robotics

In an environment where speed, efficiency and precision are everything, robotics are key. Körber’s suite of robotic solutions respond to today’s supply chain demands, optimizing your floor operations, transportation, processing, fulfillment and staff safety.

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