Ever wonder how 1,000,000 sq. ft. of warehouse space gets automated? If you guessed robotic warehouse automation, you’d be right. Now, that was probably a given with the title of this post. But, what can robots do? How expensive are they? Will they really improve efficiency enough to justify that cost?

All these questions are valid for a wholesale distributor looking to most efficiently get a product from A to B. In this post, we’ll take a dive into the world of robotic warehouse automation. See, if you are evaluating this type of solution, there are a number of things to be concerned with: integrations, warehouse changes, personnel changes, technological limitations and the like. So, let’s break this down to provide a bit more clarity on what exactly robotic warehouse automation is and how it can help.

What is Robotic Warehouse Automation?

In another post, we talked about Amazon’s fulfillment centers which have an incredible amount of robotic activities. It could certainly be considered the benchmark player in warehouse automation. Your analysis should be to become inspired by their actions but to focus on how your customers will benefit by implementing your own solution.

Robotics are increasingly becoming important for a variety of tasks. Robotic process automation (RPA) is the inclusion of robots to perform human tasks such as picking, packing, moving items, arranging shelves and beyond. It takes a typically labor-intense task such as picking orders and allocates a robot to retrieve the product instead.

The main point of robotic automation is to eliminate people movement. That’s right, the more people have to move, the less efficient the process becomes. This is why robots come in to handle the actual movement of the product. People are still (most of the time) involved in the specific task of selecting a product, packaging it, and getting it into a truck. But, each step is now limited in the amount of time the person will need to actually move the product from one stage to the next.

Automated Ground Vehicle for Warehouse Efficiency
Wellwit 500kg Robot

What Are Some Use Cases of Robotic Warehouse Automation?

Product Check-In

Here you have a warehouse with trucks that pull up to the doors. Usually, people will go in with pallet jacks to take the product off. With RPA you have a robot with laser guidance which can identify the pallet, pick it up, and move it to an unloading or staging area. This is all guided by the warehouse management system which tells a dispatch module to send the robot to take care of the incoming product. The robots only job is to move product from the truck to a staging area. Now, humans come in to actually scan the product or pallet. But, people are not actually moving about the warehouse. Once the product is scanned in, there may be another robot dispatched to take the pallet and place it within a storage bay.

Put-Away

Perhaps in your case, and in the case of Amazon, the inbound pallet must be broken down. A person at a put-away station will take a box off the pallet, scan the product barcode, and place it within a pod bay. These pod bays show up automatically positioned atop a robot. The robot shows up, the product is scanned into a bin on the pod and whisked away for storage. Again, your people are doing a minimal movement.

Picking

Here you have orders coming in, with picker located at a station. Before the order comes up on the handheld or computer screen, the automated ground vehicle (AGV) is sent to retrieve the pod with that product in the order. The robot or AGV returns to the picking station with the pod full of one or multiple types of product. This product is picked from the pod and placed directly for shipping or sent to a packing station. The robot is then sent back to the storage location to drop the pod.

Robotic Warehouse Automation Picking robot
Robotic Picking Pods

Moving

Taking the product from one station to the next is the job of another robot. This could also be a conveyor belt. In many cases, the robot is simply taking the picked product over to a packing or loading station.

Shipping

Here robots are being used to take a picked and packed product to the correct shipping station. The robot may drop it down a shoot. They may place it on a conveyor belt, or they may place it directly within a truck to go out. Either way, the robot is simply instructed to take the product to whatever area is required to ship it via the appropriate carrier or fleet truck.

Robotic Forklift

Lifting and Sorting

With advances in robotics, sensors, and lasers it is now possible to do things only capable by humans. One of these is picking up the product and sorting it. The technologies behind this innovation include computer vision, lidar, and QR. This makes it possible to send a robot to a rack, identify the position of the pallet and grab it, even if it is not ideally centered. The current use case is with a robotic forklift that is sent to an area with multiple pallets. The robot can identify the pallet needed, move others out of the way, or lift higher to retrieve this pallet.

On the sorting end of things, robots can now include scanners to find specific barcodes which should be placed. Whether on a conveyor belt, slide, or on a truck.

What Efficiency Increases Should You Expect?

With robotic warehouse automation, there are two main efficiency savings. Your primary efficiency increases come from human capital savings and efficiency of movement. Here are a few efficiency gains experienced across various robotic warehouse automation installations:

70% – Reduction in labor costs at an 850,000 sq. ft. warehouse who replaced manual labor with robots

50% – the average costs of labor dedicated to picking product in a warehouse

$0.80 to $0.25-$0.20 – The reduced cost per pick of manual vs. robotic picking

What Is the Cost and Payback Period

It’s no doubt the capital expenditure on robots is significant. Its something that at this point really only works at scale. However, if you make the investment, you will almost assuredly recover those costs and gain additional profit by doing so.

From our initial experience, the costs experienced in year one will be offset by the end of year two, and most likely already experiencing a 50-70% cost reduction by year three. So, whether your decision is one for the short term or long term, you can bet that you’ll experience a fairly significant reduction in workforce labor needed. In addition, the robots make it affordable to run your warehouses 24/7. This represents a massive advantage over traditional warehouses with a staff present for 12 hours daily.

Our costs and payback period are determined by our partner in robotic warehouse management Wellwit Robotics.

Robot Costs

For a 500kg lift capacity AGV, you’ll expect to pay anywhere from $17,000-$27,500 per robot, depending on purchase quantity. Larger lift capacity or specialty vehicles will go up from there.

In addition, you can expect to pay $30,000-$50,000 for a dispatch system. Beyond this expected costs will be integration with (if not already integrated like the Distribution Hub system) your WMS and modifications to the warehouse needed for routing.

For large warehouses (250,000 sq. ft.+) the costs should be expected at a minimum of $200,000 to well over $500,000 per large warehouse (850,000+ sq.ft.). This also depends of course on how far you want to take your robotic capability.

One way to look at this is as you build out new warehouses. For this type of implementation, simply build out the plan to include the robotic setup and operation.

Robots are certainly making their way into the warehouse. It will be up to you to decide whether it’s the right move to make now, or at a future date. Either way, you should certainly be planning on their inclusion at some point. the simple fact of the matter is that if your competition is gaining, you have near no other option but to incorporate robots into your processes.

If you are considering a move like this, consider options including Distribution Hub. While I may be biased, we are the only company to date handling warehouse activities, distribution (fleet routing, proof of delivery) and robotic activities. The challenge it that most systems are surface level. Moving toward a warehouse management system integrated with a robotic warehouse automation system gives you advantages. Significant advantages.

Feel free to reach out to a specialist@getdhub.com for consultation on your warehouse needs. Whether or not we are the right fit for you is irrelevant to value we can provide in being simply a third party in helping to evaluate your needs. We are not shy about turning businesses to another company if it seems the fit is not right. There are a lot of considerations to make and out outside opinion may provide value just here alone.

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