Optimizing their own warehouse logistics is part of the core business of most companies, and not only in the mail-order sector. At the same time it is usually also one of the main cost factors. Due to the complexity of the job, improvements in this area are among the most difficult as well as cost-intensive tasks a company has to shoulder. One option for streamlining processes to achieve greater efficiency is the automation of the warehouse using automated material flow and conveyor systems where the goods are stored in state-of-the-art shelf systems.
But how do the goods get from there to the picking station?
Often the warehouse workers who are assigned to this task are equipped with mobile scanners and sent on their way to collect the items to be picked. In addition to the high personnel costs, this solution has limitations with respect to schedule flexibility (keyword “around-the-clock order picking”) and entails disadvantages in terms of picking accuracy despite the use of cutting-edge scanning technology.
Intralogistics providers such as Kardex Remstar have developed additional solutions in order to increase picking rates, and consequently, order picking speed. As for mail-order shippers, they opt for horizontal carousel storage systems. These transport the requested goods straight to the picking place. Since the products are sent automatically to the workplace, the staff members can focus on other activities, such as packing the goods, which already results in greater speed and accuracy. What is more, the warehouse workers save the arduous trip to the goods, which are stored at scattered places. This shortens the order picking routes and moreover enhances ergonomics at the workplace.
It goes without saying that technological development does not stop here but keeps advancing steadily. For example, several systems are already on the market which allow for dynamic warehousing and order picking using autonomous mini-robotic systems that take on the jobs at hand while saving resources.
Kiva robotics – the pioneer
A pioneer in this area is the US company Kiva, which was founded in 2003 and quickly attracted attention with its groundbreaking new development in the US logistics industry; after all, the product did entirely without conveyor belts, automated high-bay racks, and novel transport trolleys – instead, it focused on small, autonomously acting robots which moved through the warehouse picking up small shelves from any place to carry them to the packing sites. After the items were removed, the shelves were automatically returned, and the robot went on looking for its next destination.
In other words, rather than sending warehouse workers on their way with pick lists or mobile scanners, this job was handled by the small, orange-colored robot with an integrated lifting mechanism for moving the entire (small) shelf that contained the requested merchandise. Instead of grabbing the individual item, in this process the entire shelf is picked up and taken to the place where it is needed. Therefore the entire warehouse is permanently in motion, as it were, while all that is left to do for the stationary warehouse workers who are positioned at the picking places is taking out the requested products from the shelves the robots have brought them.
As anywhere in the age of electronically controlled warehouse logistics systems, the trick lies in the software of the overall system that directs the robots to the proper place at the right time. Avoiding congestion is evidently no easy task when hundreds of robots are at work in warehouses with several thousand shelves. It is precisely the virtually unlimited scalability and flexibility that makes this system so interesting for users.
Aside from sufficient electric power and the investment in the proper robots and racks as well as level surfaces, the Kiva solution requires little else. On the contrary, numerous factors are eliminated which are indispensable today when the work is done by warehouse workers. For example, there is no need to illuminate or heat the warehouse areas that are used; after all, a robot even works in total darkness and far below any temperature limits as defined by labor laws. With the exception of picking and putting, human labor is hardly required anymore; which translates into a reduction of the physical limitations solely to the run time of the robots’ rechargeable battery. Legally mandated work and break times or such factors as fatigue or distraction are virtually of no consequence anymore for the warehousing processes. According to Kiva, the system boosts the productivity of the warehouse staff three- to four-fold.
All of these advantages are doubtless a reason why the Kiva system is already employed by many top US mail order businesses. One of them, the largest one by far – Amazon – found the corporate concept so attractive that it acquired the company in 2012, shortly after the technology was presented on the German market.
After purchasing Kiva, Amazon greatly increased production of the system, as its own need of robots alone – an estimated 18,000 units for the global Amazon warehouses – is about three times higher than the company’s accumulated production since its foundation. The sale of the system to interested third parties will therefore have to remain on the backburner for the time being.
And what is happening in Germany?
By now there are also a number of German mechanical engineering businesses that are working on a similar solution. One of the pioneers in this field is the company Grenzebach, which claims it can reduce order picking expenses by up to 70 percent with its newly developed G-Com system.
The Bavarian engineering firm’s G-Com solution is also based on mobile, agile robots – the so-called “Carrys” – which move around the warehouse on their own. Since the engines of the little robots are charged by induction, they can operate without interruption, eliminating any time loss due to dwell time at the charging stations. Controlled by the software developed by Grenzebach, the Carrys move to the pertinent shelves, lift them, and move the goods to the picking stations, which can be configured ergonomically and flexibly. There the warehouse workers retrieve the items and prepare them for shipping. In terms of their arrangement, the racks are built in such a way that they are perfectly variable. Consequently they can hold items of all different dimensions and weights. This makes them superbly suitable for storing heterogeneous products and for providers who work with a broad inventory.
Yet automation has other advantages as well: while warehouse workers often have to walk 15 or even 18 kilometers a day with conventional systems, the robot solutions allow them to remain at the picking stations without suffering major physical strain. The “goods to person” system thus drastically reduces the staff’s order picking travel times. According to Grenzebach, picking time thus shrinks by about 55% compared to conventional solutions. Add to this the about 15% of the total time spent to get oriented and look for the product on the shelf, and we arrive at an efficiency boost of 70%. The fact that only the strict picking and putting process of the items is done manually reduces personnel costs significantly. What is more, the simplification of the procedures reduces the training time of the staff to just one to two days.
At G-Com, too, the storage area no longer has to be illuminated, ventilated, or heated. Only the area of the picking stations must meet the legal requirements, which typically concerns only about 10% of the entire storage area and consequently results in considerable energy cost savings.
Induction loops are not required to control the Carrys, which makes using them an extremely flexible affair and, moreover, should make moving the storage systems cost-efficient and uncomplicated.
The introduction of G-Com systems is planned for sometime during 2014.
The German plant manufacturer Eisenmann’s answer to Kiva and G-Com is its no more than 60-kg-heavy floor conveyor Logimover operating on a double-skid system. With its powerful lithium-ion battery design, the driverless and extremely agile conveyance transports loads of up to one ton at a speed of one meter per second, requiring hardly any space and thus helping to optimize the transport and warehouse logistics processes. The moving robot consists of two parallel skids which it maneuvers underneath standard pallets, lifts them, and carries them to a specific location via an optical track guiding system, all on its own. The two independent skids are synchronized by sophisticated software which monitors and controls the entire conveyance route.
According to the company, the Logimover is suitable for diverse intralogistics tasks, from material provision for machines, to putting goods in and out of storage, all the way to complex order picking jobs. The skid concept as well as the innovative control and drive system of the Logimover are now protected in Europe by patent law.
Neobotix is taking an extra step: with its MT-400 the company presented another autonomous mobile robot at Automatica 2014 which was developed as a cost-efficient, highly flexible transport system. Thanks to its compact construction, the MT-400 is perfectly able to move even through very narrow aisles, where neither floor markings nor other installations for guiding the conveyance are required. Instead, the navigation system relies on the information of an installed laser scanner that allows the robot to circumvent obstacles and react to unpredictable situations.
A self-steering, thinking warehouse robot? From here to arriving at an autonomously acting comprehensive solution which at some point will make the assignment of human beings in the warehouse entirely superfluous no longer seems to be such a very big step.
A logistics robot? Who needs that?
What with all their individual differences, due to their high degree of automation and flexibility, the systems from Kiva and the German companies are specifically geared toward the needs of the rapidly growing e-commerce and multichannel market.
This is corroborated mainly by the following factors:
Optimum handling of wide inventory pallets
Due to their flexible and modular design, the mobile assistants are primarily suitable for warehouses as well as order picking and putting operations which process a large number of different shipments from a wide array of products. For this reason they are downright predestined for the logistics solutions of companies in the mail-order and multichannel industry as well as order fulfillment service providers in the field of e-commerce. Here they can show their efficiency benefits to full advantage and satisfy the steadily increasing demands of retailers for ever-shorter delivery times while reducing costs permanently.
Virtually any item can be stored with the systems presented here as long as it does not exceed the maximum dimensions of their chassis. Moreover, the racks may be equipped with tubs, drawers, hanging rods, etc. as needed, thus flexibly adjusting to the requirements of the pertinent inventory. In this way they help increase the efficiency of the available storage space, because any area can serve as a place for putting the mobile shelves. Due to their few requirements with respect to technical installations, they can be easily integrated into existing warehouse buildings.
Fast retrieval times
The fact that the goods are supplied to the picking station reduces the order processing time to just a few minutes. This is an advantage that satisfies the increasing demand for extremely fast delivery (keywords ‘next’ and ‘same day delivery’).
It goes without saying that there are limits to the use of the little assistants – as yet! For example, it will surely be most efficient to keep storing fast-moving items on pallets which are within reach of the picking stations. Nor can Kiva & Co. handle the operation of state-of-the-art storage lift systems, of high-bay racks and carousel shelves, or the transport of very heavy or large-sized goods for the time being. Therefore, in the medium term mixed solutions will probably make the most sense, where the different systems can be used side by side, mutually complementing each other. However, the new systems can already make a major contribution toward providing a major boost to the efficiency of warehouse logistics.
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