How the next generation of automation will drive warehouses of the future

MELONEE WISE   Steve Jennings_Getty Images
Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics

COVID-19 has upended many businesses, but none more so than brick and mortar stores that rely on foot traffic. The combination of government-mandated shutdowns and consumer worry made these retailers' sales tank in 2020, with almost 10,000 U.S. stores closing permanently. But consumers didn't stop shopping - trapped at home, they took their buying online, which led to an e-commerce boom.

That boom has strained distribution and fulfillment centers, which every online order passes through before reaching a buyer's doorstep. The pandemic exacerbated existing labor shortages in these warehouses; meanwhile, consumers expect online orders to arrive faster than ever, with two-day shipping the new standard. Warehouses are under tremendous pressure to do more with less.

These challenges won't go away when the pandemic ends. In fact, IBM research shows that COVID accelerated the shift to e-commerce by 5 years. To keep up with this growth in e-commerce and to compete against the likes of Amazon, companies have begun viewing automation as more than a competitive advantage - it's now a necessity. Warehouses must embrace new automation technologies like robotics and connected devices. Existing automation has already improved safety and efficiency, and warehouses that embrace the next generation - flexible solutions for monitoring and changing workflows on demand - will flourish. Here's how automation has already addressed some of the biggest warehouse challenges and what's next.

Warehouses are at a breaking point

The world has changed drastically in the last half century, but some warehouses haven't. Many remain labor intensive, relying on workers to find a specific item in a sea of products and walk with it, sometimes miles, to the right processing station.

As the pandemic increased demands on warehouses, many companies struggled to hire staff to keep up while following COVID-19 regulations. Facing growing order volumes, these companies had to rely on staff to walk miles every day to pick products off shelves and keep operations running.

Among warehouses that have embraced automation, the pandemic proved all automation is not created equally. Many warehouses that have automation in place rely on fixed solutions such as conveyors and sortation systems, which can take 6-9 months to implement and are difficult to adjust to support new workflow needs. These fixed solutions were pushed to their limit in 2020, as facilities sought to meet new demands and make changes to their workflows on the fly.

Automation has made warehouses safer and faster

In response, some companies have begun automating specific workflows within their warehouses to reduce pressure on workers and increase productivity. COVID-19 accelerated this trend as facilities had to adopt social distancing rules and limit the number of workers in their facilities. In some of these facilities, employees now work side-by-side with mobile robots that quickly move goods across long distances, reducing physical strain on workers and speeding up production.

Automation also makes it easier for companies to operate warehouses in smaller facilities. As retail foot traffic dried up and online demand soared, some companies outfitted old retail stores that are closer to population centers as distribution centers. Using robots to power operations at all hours, they can fulfill and deliver orders faster.

How the next generation of automation will drive warehouses

Historically, a major sticking point in automation adoption is the time and cost of installation. Installing fixed automation systems requires facilities to cut operations in half for weeks. That obstacle is fading: new flexible automation solutions can be operational in a day. For example, warehouse workers can unbox a mobile robot, connect it to wifi and have it autonomously moving materials within hours.

In the case where there is a large investment in fixed automation that companies want to leverage, but still implement flexible automation like AMRs, cloud-based AMRs offer a way to bridge the gap between these two types of automation. For example, AMRs can autonomously move totes on and off a conveyor system by moving to the end of the conveyor, letting the cloud software know that it is next to the conveyor, and have the cloud software turn on the conveyor system and the rollers on top of the AMR to move a tote on or off the AMR. The same sort of integration can be used with other types of fixed automation.

Even after automation is installed, another challenge is that warehouse work effectively happens in a black box. Facility managers see what goes in and out, but not which aisles are congested or when a forklift moves too fast. Mobile robots with sensors can help by acting as "hall monitors," showing managers the floor in real-time. Managers can spot inefficiencies and dangers, then create strategies to increase productivity and stop accidents before they happen.

As the shift from physical stores to e-commerce continues, warehouses will be more essential than ever to companies' relationships with their customers and their bottom lines. With an ongoing labor shortage and heightened consumer demand, warehouses that embrace a new generation of flexible automation will be safer and more efficient.

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