Four things robots can do for your distribution center

By Brenna Sniderman

As we think about advanced, smart technologies, the thing that comes to mind is: robots. Well, maybe just for me. But I think of smart robots that can learn from their surroundings, adjust and figure things out on their own. Robots that can learn from each other, move objects, and work relatively more safely alongside humans, each augmenting the other.

It turns out this notion isn’t as far-fetched as we might think. Distribution centers are increasingly using smart, Industry 4.0-driven technologies to meet the evolving needs of customers. Faster turnaround and throughput times, the need to carry an ever-broader array of diverse items in one facility, and the increasing demand to offer supply chain capabilities have made the process of warehousing and logistics a far more complex affair. Check out our recent paper on this topic.

Automated processes have typically enabled the movement of standardized goods–boxes the same size and shape, for example. This feature didn’t seem like a limitation when warehouses did the standard things warehouses have traditionally done: stocked the same or similar objects until it was time to move them from place to place. New distribution centers, however–also known as throughput centers–are expected to house an incredibly wide variety of objects. Automated processes may be expected to handle bananas as well as laptops, or shoes as well as appliances, and sometimes package them in the same order for shipment. (And let’s not forget the need to be able to locate them in the facility first!) Goods are subject to spoilage or need to be kept at a specific temperature may share the same facility with electronics. What’s more, distribution centers may need to scale up or down their workloads based on periods of peak demand – all without losing productivity.

All of this means that technologies used in these facilities must be flexible. It’s a term not typically associated with automated machinery, to be sure. And as the demands placed on distribution centers continue to grow, so too do the risks: damaged, lost, or spoiled goods, mix-ups and malfunctions, just to name a few. Fortunately, as these risk increase, so too does a corresponding improvement in Industry 4.0 technologies available to navigate these challenges.

Here are the four benefits to robots in your distribution center:

  1. Augmented reality

    Vision-picking, for example, represents the next generation of voice-picking–a standard technology for warehouse pickers–driven by augmented reality. This can help workers find an increasingly wide, diverse array of objects throughout the warehouse floor to fill customer orders.

  2. Learning and adapting

    Adaptive robots and connected automated guided vehicles, for their part, can adapt from one product type to another, and learn from their environments. Some can also self-adjust and crowdsource information from other robots in the facility, aggregating and sharing information with each other to solve challenges on the floor. Some can also work alongside humans–previously a safety challenge–collecting the objects they pull from shelves. Still other machines can provide “value added” services increasingly in demand in distribution centers, adjusting between different objects and enabling capabilities such as predictive maintenance.

  3. Flexibility and diversity in scale

    Still other developments such as fully automated picking can help distribution centers adjust to rapid changes in demand, while working in nearly any size space and adjusting to changes in package size. Other capabilities, such as validation to ensure the correct order fulfilment, are in development.

  4. Managing the facility and its assets

    Tying all of this together, next-generation distribution operations systems can optimize performance through monitoring automated tools and ensuring their usage is balanced across any unexpected changes in labor resources or fulfillment demand. Smart facility management and improved safety measures also ensure greater efficiency in facility systems and a safer environment for humans working alongside machines.

In Industry 4.0 and distribution centers: Transforming distribution operations through innovation, the authors examine some of these technological advancements.

Taken together, these Industry 4.0-driven developments can enable many distribution centers to meet changing demands: faster turnaround, greater flexibility in dealing with demand fluctuations and a wider array of products, and the ability to function more as a supply chain, providing value-added services to clients and customers. As distribution centers adopt these technologies, they can do so with emerging trends and their current needs in mind, as well as corresponding adjustments they may need to make in training workers to manage the new technologies, and keeping them secure and safe.

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