November 19, 2020

Warehouse Automation Technology: Latest AI Trends in the Industry

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Warehouse automation technology and robotics systems depend on technological IoT-related infrastructure that smartens the processes, integrating with Warehouse Management Systems.

Full warehouse automation includes many operations. Machines aid workers with receiving, palletizing, scanning, picking, and packing processes.

Smartphones, tablets, big data, and Cloud technologies have digitized warehouse management tasks to improve productivity.

ERP and WMS integration is winning to achieve agility in the logistics sphere.

It’s possible to define four ways of implementing AI in warehouse management:

  • Basic (specific barcode scanners, label printers, applications);
  • System (WMS, voice-directed technologies);
  • Mechanized (conveyors, storage and retrieval machines, WCS software);
  • Automated Guided Vehicles.

Automate Warehouse Control System (WCS) software monitors the functions of various material handling equipment and provides a consistent interface for conveyors, palletizers, sorters, etc.

The warehouse automation technology market tends to grow from 13 billion dollars in 2018 to 27 billion dollars by 2025. Globalization of supply chain networks and e-commerce, the appearance of autonomous mobile robots, and automated fulfillment centers are the grounds for new warehouse technology inventions. Also, read about warehousing problems and solutions.

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Robotics architects are investing in AI in warehouse management to impress with innovative solutions. Startup companies like Berkshire Grey, Boston Dynamics, Agility Robotics, Righthand Robotics, Kindred AI, Covariant, OSARO, Plus One Robotics, and XYZ Robotics have developed new systems for inventory tracking and delivery schedules. Retailers including Amazon, Walmart, and Kroger have already put up money into warehouse automation technology.

The new era of automation can create a future where employees will be released from repetitive actions. About 766 billion dollars of wages in the USA are spent on predictable jobs, which is better to substitute for robots.

How can robots be good co-workers for human employees? Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Will AI in warehouse management be able to replace every human work?

Coreteka will try to answer these questions in the next paragraphs. We will observe how the usage of warehouse automation technology makes shipping processes more efficient in new fulfillment centers.

Innovations of Amazon Robotics

With the help of AI in warehouse management, employees in warehouses can be replaced in repetitive actions by cleaning robots, goods-to-person, and mobile picking robots.

Amazon, an online shopping giant from the USA, purchased a start-up Kiva Systems in 2012 and rebranded it to the center for robotic business.

Now Amazon Robotics LLC supports innovations to bring cutting-edge technology into the logistics field faster. It also bought a start-up Canvas Technology, which builds wheeled robots, guided by computer vision.

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Amazon company owners envision a future, where “humans and robots work harmoniously to send packages on time”.

For now, Amazon warehouses use more than 200,000 robots. They work together with thousands of employees to fulfill deliveries to Amazon Prime customers. New warehouse technology helps to keep 40 percent more inventory. Types of robots that are in operation are:

  • Palletisers — grab boxes from a conveyor belt;
  • Robostows — lift pallets to high shelves;
  • Drives — move pallets of goods;
  • Drones — deliver last-mile parcels;
  • Automated forklifts with navigation technology.

Amazon’s warehouse automation technology applies AWS cloud, and integrates with Alexa AI-based voice capacities, so users might activate a robot with voice commands.

Amazon Robotics works on a new robot Xanthus Sort Bot, which has x-drive units with different attachments. It will be used for sorting parcels to chutes. Xanthus Tote Mover, which is also under development, will transfer yellow boxes (totes) to packing workstations.

Pegasus X-Sort Drive robot, which is a more updated variant of the original Kiva robot, is much smaller than Xanthus. It was constructed to accurately sort finished packages. The robot takes a parcel from a worker and moves to the correct chute after the labeling process. It reads the barcodes on the ground during movement to go in the right direction.

Picking process at Amazon warehouses

The picking process can be really complicated. Warehouse technology productivity was gained by reducing the millions of miles, that human workers, stowers, or pickers, used to step into the traditional warehouses.

Stowers used to walk a lot earlier and place a trolley with products on shelves. Now goods-to-person robots move empty pods to the stowers.

When the pod is full, the stower sends a robot through a cage to the workstation of a picker. A system analyzes a captured image of the robot’s movements to check if the wrong items were not picked. Then, the packer applies any required labels according to the SLAM process, an acronym for Scan Label Apply Manifest.

Only several associates are allowed to be in the cage with the robots. They have to wear a special vest that communicates their location to the robots to avoid encounters. Learn more about supply chain management.

If you are interested in exploring robots’  actions, watch this video:

When employees had to select products themselves, they coped with around 100 items per hour. Now, the number has increased to 400 items per hour due to warehouse automation technology.

Why does Amazon still have thousands of people who are employed in robotic warehouses?

The director of Amazon Robotics LLC highlighted that there is a wrong interpretation that the company wants to substitute human workers with robots totally. Excellent cognitive and manipulation abilities of humans cannot be interchanged by AI in warehouse management and robotics.

Robots are starting to realize levels of vision and motor control that are similar to human levels.

Amazon’s fulfillment centers have very complex robots that transfer products, but they have not discovered a smart enough robot for picking tasks. Experimentations in warehouse technology sometimes lead to costly mistakes.

The data between 2016 and 2019 shows an increase in employees’ injuries in robotic warehouses because the workers do in-ergonomic moves. These injuries are most prevalent during the holiday peak seasons. Robots are known to have one speed of work, and it is impossible to speed up them during peak periods as with humans.

Robots only can do preprogrammed work. It needs human effort and a lot of resources. Amazon is constantly working on better warehouse automation technology for manipulation.

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What processes cannot be automated in warehouse management?

Let’s discover aspects of having robots and humans work around each other. Yes, a robot is 3 to 5 times more efficient than manual solutions, but humans have better visual perception and gripping capabilities. A robot has no problem-solving abilities and has to learn how to grasp the goods from scratch. Human employees, on the contrary, should work on problem-solving and deep-thinking tasks.

We still do not have machines with the dexterity and flexibility of humans. Companies perform simulations during surveys to determine how to make robots perform the tasks from an ergonomics point of view. In the present period, if a robot cannot manipulate a heavy or weirdly shaped parcel, a human worker helps.

As shown at the National Retail Federation’s 2020 Show in New York, various companies exhibit their latest robots that work alongside retail employees and around customers. Many logistics experts agree that warehouse automation technology will play a key role in the post-pandemic workplace with a social distancing concept.

It is possible that by investing in AI in warehouse management the companies can eliminate the jobs for human employees in the future and employ only those who would fix the robotic devices. However, this outcome is far from the truth, and we cannot predict it now when the warehouse automation technology experts cannot develop the ideally movable robot.

Also, you can read about supply chain traceability on our website.

Anyway, Coreteka will help you update your warehouse technology for a better workflow.

Make sure to reach out to us if you’re interested in innovations.