Global trade competition, aging workforce, and rapid e-commerce expansion fuel transformations in logistics. Obviously, it will not take too long to watch an army of box-shaped robots zipping around a warehouse to fetch orders, scan pallet labels, or restock inventory.

As technology evolves, warehouse robots are maturing and getting more affordable. Statista claims that the average price tag put on industrial robotic solutions has dropped to $45,000 in 2018, whereas in 2009, it totaled $63,000. Thus, the cost of LocusBots, being used in Bonobos and Zara’s warehouses, amounts to approximately $35,000 per machine, which is able to collaborate and adjust to specific distribution center requirements owing to multiple configuration options.

Higher global density of automatic warehouse solutions spurs more interest in technical jobs. Today’s robotics engineers do not belong to the list of rare specialists, therefore their average annual salary rates start from $51,000 and go up to $154,000.

This steady decline in costs create favorable conditions for further increases in warehouse robots production backed up by generous funding. Robotics startups like Magazino keep scooping up millions in investments to develop AI-based software coordinating a robot fleet or to create three-dimensional robots like the ones produced by Exotec Solutions.

What is the major benefit of robots? For businesses it is the productivity boost and cost reduction perspective that matter the most. A Japanese retailer Uniqlo is one of the early adopters. It is running an automated warehouse with 90% of its workers replaced by warehouse robots. They work 24 hours a day doing the most tedious jobs, e.g. inspecting and sorting the clothes.

How do automated warehouse solutions help market leaders like Amazon, Ocado, or Alibaba to stay on top? Let’s find out.

Ocado Warehouse Robots. Case #1

Tech Insider has recently shared a video showing Ocado’s fully automated warehouse “being several times the size of the football pitch.” The robots are moving around the grid fulfilling about 65,000 orders weekly. The futuristic film below is nothing else than another day at Ocado’s Customer Fulfillment Center.

Ocado is a UK-based online supermarket making deliveries from warehouses to customer homes, and this is not the only thing the company is famous for. It has made a name producing and selling modern robotic solutions to other grocery stores. They do all the sorting, lifting, packing and shipping required taking a warehouse efficiency to the next level.

The robots’ speed is fascinating: 3.5 million items can be processed every week. This automated model of order fulfillment allows for more effective space usage, since packages are stored in piles being 17 boxes high. The most frequently ordered items are placed at the top, while the least ordered ones are put at the bottom.

Each of the warehouse robots cannot make decisions for itself, though. All the actions they do are administered by the central computer system making them more helpful, e.g. robots can act in sync to handle a big order and split up when needed. No time is wasted for any rearrangements propelling shipments speed.

Ocado’s automated grid is scalable, e.g. increased operation requires only a few more warehouse robots and crates. The robotic solutions are easily interchangeable, as every machine has the same capabilities and can replace the broken item without being reprogrammed. This is how Paul Clarke, CTO at Ocado, comments on this possibility:

“… That leads to economies of scale, because we’ve reduced all that mechanistic diversity down to one common component.” (retrieved from www.theverge.com)

These solutions for warehouse management have attracted much attention. Kroger, the largest US supermarket chain operating 2,800 stores, has recently acquired a 5% Ocado stake for as much as £183 million. Kroger’s further plans are rather ambitious. The company aims to create 20 new warehouses using Ocado’s robotic solutions to completely modernize the supply chain.

Amazon Warehouse Robots. Case #2

Amazon is probably one of the most cited examples when it comes to new age solutions for warehouse management. The giant retailer has long made warehouse robots part of the supply chain turning exhaustive manual work into a thing of the past.

According to Dailymail.co.uk, the company has over 500,000 payroll employees globally on top of contractors and part-time workers and 100,000 robots assisting humans with labor-intensive works.

The first robots appeared in Amazon’s facilities in 2014. Originally, they were developed by Kiva Systems and acquired by Amazon Robotics for $775 million. Since then, Amazon warehouse robots have transformed into reliable automatic assistants functioning alongside humans. Powered by computer vision and machine learning, they pick heavy load, move it to the picking station, and do loading, while Amazon’s workers troubleshoot and maintain them, analyze the data received, ensure the robots have bins to load, and eliminate possible hindrances on their way (like stuck items in a packaging machine).

These are some of the technical characteristics the robots possess:

“The robots, which cover about 5 feet per second, can carry up to 750 pounds, sliding with towers on its back while navigating along 90-degree-angle paths by scanning markers on the floor. They have cameras to sense if something unexpected is in the way, but Amazon still keeps separate work areas for people and robots.” (retrieved from www.chicagotribune.com)

Although the warehouse robots have gained new skills, they often fail to cope with packaging tasks and demand a human step in and check if the order is accurately fulfilled. Still, they allow faster warehouse management, enhanced safety in the workplace, reduced walking distances and working hours. Here is how Amazon is using robots in warehouses.

Alibaba Warehouse Robots. Case #3

Another big name taking part in the global race to speed up deliveries is Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant. Today, the company operates a 3,000 sq.m. warehouse with almost 70% of the work completed by automated guided vehicles called Zhu Que.

Alibaba’s delivery bots are equipped with laser sensors enabling them to quickly scan surroundings, identify objects, map routes and prevent collisions.

Powered by self-charging batteries and Wi-Fi to receive instructions, the vehicles move at a 5 meters per second speed and lift 600 kilos at a time. When the battery goes low, the warehouse robots can get to the charging station on their own. A 5 minute charge is enough for them to work 8 hours more.

Their main goal is to transport goods to human pickers who proceed with assembling orders and shipping.

Although the automatic warehouse started functioning a year ago, the manufacturer of the vehicles Quicktron reported the output has grown by three times and reduced the time taken by humans to travel long distances within the facility.

“Traditionally, a worker could sort 1,500 products during a 7.5-hour shift after taking 27,924 steps; with the help of Zhu Que, the same wforker could sort 3,000 products during the same period of time and only 2,563 steps need to be taken.” (retrieved from www.dailymail.co.uk)

As efficiency improves, Alibaba increases its shipment capacity. Thus, on Singles Day, one of the most popular Chinese holidays, Alibaba’s sales revenues reached a staggering $25.3 billion (in 2017).

Bottom Line

Obviously, robotic warehouse solutions do not transform into massive job destroyers, at least for now. The cases featured in the post prove machines can carry out a supportive function to facilitate human work.

Warehouse robots are not skillful enough to tackle more complex tasks as deciding what supplier to buy goods from or fixing operational malfunctions.

Quick adoption of warehouse robotics innovations requires a substantial warehouse redesign making it more suitable for navigation and storage. Flat floors, increased building height, and high-load resistance structures add to robots’ efficiency.

As robots get more involved in the distribution center work, warehouse operators can be assigned different tasks managing vehicles, optimizing workflows, and resolving technical issues.