Industry View: Automation and the Future of Warehouse Racking

26th July 2019

Logistics BusinessIndustry View: Automation and the Future of Warehouse Racking

Does warehouse racking need to change to accommodate automation? Invicta’s James Beale offers a personal view:

Away from Brexit, there’s one word that dominates the conversation around warehouse design and storage: automation. The rise of robotics has gone from a sci-fi pipe dream to something that’s actively being employed in warehouses around the world. With autonomous vehicles now working alongside human operatives, it seems likely that this is only the start of integrating robotics and other technology into the warehouse space.

While full automation may still be a decade or more away, it pays to plan ahead, and consider the potential impact of automation on your business, both in terms of positives and drawbacks. Integrating automated vehicles and robots into your space could save you time and money – but it may also require a radical rethink of how spaces are designed. What then does the future hold for traditional warehouse racking, and what should businesses do to prepare?

Android Dreams

Amazon may be the standard bearers when it comes to warehouse automation, but they’re also the most outwardly pessimistic. According to Scott Anderson, the director of Amazon’s Robotics Fulfillment division, full warehouse automation in the sense that we understand it may be a decade or more away. Citing the example of robots choosing a ripe banana instead of an unripe one, Anderson also points to difficulties in handling small items without damaging others, and doing so at the same speed as human operatives. Speed is very much Amazon’s priority, and it seems that accelerating their current output is more important than reducing labour costs.

Others, however, see things differently. Investors who recently visited both Amazon and Ocado’s most advanced warehouses overwhelmingly backed the latter, believing Ocado’s technology to be some distance ahead of Amazon’s, and a surer bet to dominate the warehouse sector. Positives cited included the robots’ ability to detect the ripeness of fruit – contrary to Anderson’s claims – as well as their increased speed and better utilisation of space. Ocado have already struck deals with major chains including Coles in Australia and Kroger in the US, and are rapidly emerging as Amazon’s biggest competitor in the space.

Of course, automation needn’t be fully automated, with different levels of integration likely for different usage cases. The small, mobile robots on grids used by Ocado are only suited to picking up groceries and household goods, with bigger robots needed for bigger applications. Larger automated vehicles would be necessary for bulky, heavy goods, which may ultimately replace the traditional forklift. Elsewhere, certain sorting and picking operations may always be more suited to humans, where dexterity and intelligent decision-making are key.

Building Networks

The mistake that people often make when they think about automation is that it’s simply a way to reduce labour costs. Drawing from our experience with robots in factories (and going all the way back to looms and printing presses), we think that introducing machines is simply a way to reduce the reliance on workers. By getting robots to take over jobs performed by humans, you eliminate injuries, fatigue and the need for breaks, thereby allowing warehouses and factories to run for longer. For a business like Amazon, which relies on its one-day shipping model, this round-the-clock coverage would be invaluable.

As important as labour costs are in driving automation, though, the biggest benefit of robots is actually logistical. By automating all of the operations within a warehouse, you remove the need for managers, supervisors and other lines of communication, and enable the warehouse to be integrated with other processes. Instead of the people in production liaising with those in storage, who then liaise with distribution, the whole supply chain can be controlled by software. This not only means that you need fewer people to oversee the process, but also eliminates the potential for lost time and miscommunication, as well as logging pertinent data automatically.

Naturally, both warehouse automation and its integration with the rest of the pipeline will demand some adaptation. As well as the floorplan of the warehouse, the racking itself may have to change to accommodate different pallet sizes, as well as the size of the autonomous vehicles. While autonomous storage and retrieval (AS/RS) racking already exists, it is limited to small and uniform items, and requires a complex system of rails and lifts to support the vehicles. Future systems may not require rails at all, with the robots using sensors to avoid collisions and scaling heights themselves.

Design Decisions

The biggest issue for automated warehouse design as it stands is the amount of fragmentation in the robotics space. With robotics firms often building one type of robot with a very specific function, you might require a different robot for each aspect of the storage process – delivery, sorting, storage and retrieval etc. This could mean four or five different kinds of autonomous vehicle in your space, each with different requirements. Getting these to work together – and work with any modifications or custom devices you might use – is as big a problem as teaching them to navigate your space.

As such, it may be that as software environments and warehouse management systems become more standardised, so do warehouse layouts. Racking designs may be drafted in software that plugs straight into these management systems, ensuring complete compatibility with the robots before a single shelf has been installed. Instead of hand-measuring a space and engineering a solution, cameras and sensors could be used to create a precise 3D model of a warehouse. This would then be fed into design software, which would calculate the most efficient solution with the materials at hand.

All of this relies on two factors: how scalable the technology is, and how affordable it is to a range of businesses. There’s no doubt that robotics could eventually improve almost any sufficiently large warehouse space, whether that’s one robot doing some heavy lifting or 50 robots zig-zagging through aisles. Even so, it’s likely that precision-engineered robots, wireless communication hubs and warehouse redesigns will always outstrip the short-term cost of wages.

The Amazon executive may be wrong in regards to the breadth of uses already offered by robotics. Thousands of firms across the world are already finding use in automation and semi-automation, whether that’s in efficiency or the PR and novelty value of a hulking metal workforce. For the majority of small and medium-sized businesses, however, the benefits will have to be overwhelming – and convincing businesses of that could take much more than a decade.

James Beale is the Operations Manager at Invicta Pallet Racking. For over 35 years Invicta has been at the forefront of the archive storage industry throughout the UK and Europe, designing and installing some of the largest warehouse racking systems currently found on the market.