With the continual growth of e-commerce, supply chain executives are faced with the task of meeting consumer demands for shorter delivery times. Retail giants like Amazon have set the precedent of next day or even same day delivery and the majority of retailers are struggling to keep up. In fact, 56 percent of supply chain leaders see the demand for quick and accurate fulfillment as their greatest challenge. In an effort to overcome this, many retailers have turned to automation technology to supplement their workflow and increase output.
Robotic warehouse systems are pushing the boundaries of automation to address inefficiencies and increase productivity for businesses. However, given the unpredictable and dynamic nature of the typical warehouse, successfully implementing robotic systems presents four main challenges for warehouse managers:
- Navigation in dynamic environments
In warehouses, the environment is constantly changing due to the movement of products and shifting “walls” of boxes, which makes it challenging for robots to recognize their surroundings well enough to properly function and adapt. Objects can drastically vary in appearance or be remarkably similar, and must be differentiated in order for a robot to be able to recognize them to find its way around.
- Adapting to new variables and obstacles
Everything is constantly on the move. People, crates, pallets, etc. appear in aisles frequently and without warning, presenting numerous obstacles for robots to navigate.
Compounding the challenge, in even the best warehouse operations, items are often placed in a haphazard, unorganized way, and there’s no guarantee that an item is undamaged, in the correct place or that a database of inventory has been updated in anything approaching real-time. New SKUs come in all the time with a wide variety of shapes, sizes and weights – all of which present new variables that robots must learn and adapt to.
- Item manipulation
Once a robot has overcome the challenges inherent in finding objects, it has to overcome the last major technical obstacle – getting an item off the shelf and to a box. Various robots have attempted to deal with the dynamic nature of items outlined above, but all have lacked a robust adaptive robotic system that is designed to handle the day-to-day challenges of item manipulation. Creating a robotic arm capable of handling a large variety of item sizes is very challenging, especially with cost constraints in mind. As a result, previous systems have required people to put cargo on and take cargo off robotic delivery systems, lessening automation.
If object manipulation is automated at all, it is done with custom, fixed automation which has worked in fixed manufacturing, but fails miserably in the dynamic environments of the average warehouse. This is because warehouses don’t have a fixed traffic flow. Random orders come in every hour and must be serviced. Seasonality also affects traffic flow within the warehouse, with one month out of the year requiring multiple times more output than the other 11 months.
- Costs and ROI
On top of addressing technical issues, the total cost of implementing robotic solutions must be less than the productivity and efficiency gained by adding them to existing systems and labor – otherwise a warehouse has shiny new toys but becomes less competitive. Existing solutions have been extremely cost prohibitive to many warehouses, often requiring a huge upfront commitment to handle even average amounts of throughput and only achieving a ROI after more than five years.
Due to the rapid advances in technology, a two-year-old system might be outdated compared to new systems coming to market, so warehouses should select an option that offers frequent upgrades.
The majority of robotic solutions currently on the market have not been able to cope with these issues to make warehouses more successful. Even a small, seemingly insignificant change can cause existing industrial robots to malfunction, therefore requiring frequent re-programming and extra costs. That’s the exact opposite of what you want when your business hangs in the balance.
However, in recent years, roboticists have begun to develop robots that can operate within a constantly shifting environment without frequent reprogramming. These adaptive robots maneuver around navigation and manipulation roadblocks with their advanced ‘vision’ tools and software that enables picking precision, all with lower cost hardware platforms. Additionally, these systems are designed from scratch to tackle common pitfalls, establishing a far lower price point than existing solutions.
Robotic systems are the future of warehouse automation, but require careful preparation and execution to work within the dynamic and rapidly changing work environment. That is the problem that inVia Robotics set out to solve, by creating a cost-effective, dynamic solution that increases supply-chain productivity.