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These Five Types of Robots Support Warehouse Workflows


Industrial professionals know that various types of warehouse robots help get work done in giant facilities. Many customers never know what role the machines play in ensuring they receive items on time and in good condition.

Individuals considering using robots in industrial automation should spend adequate time learning about the capabilities and limitations of these high-tech machines. For example, some types of robots help carry products to different locations in a facility, while others assist with picking and packing items.

People worry robots will take over their jobs. Such anxieties are at least partly justified, especially for individuals in low-skilled roles. However, in the best cases, robotics allow humans to participate more-enjoyable activities that utilize their creativity and brainpower. Robots excel in repetitive tasks but don’t have the depth of experience most humans naturally acquire throughout their careers and lifetimes. Some experts argue that robots must ideally support people instead of replacing them.

Regardless of how individuals feel about these machines, the fact remains that robots in industrial automation are here to stay. Here are the types of warehouse robots that typically provide the most value to the decision-makers who invest in them.

1. Automated Guided Vehicles

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are reliable options for transporting goods from one area to another. It’s easy to see how convenient they are in huge facilities like warehouses. AGVs move in dedicated areas by utilizing wires or markings on the floor. Most models have onboard cameras and sensors to help with this task, ensuring they go to the right places while avoiding obstacles.

Engineers working in the warehouse can also program the AGVs to follow predetermined routes at certain times. These types of robots are particularly handy when decision-makers prioritize improving workflows.

In one instance, a manufacturer added AGVs to a generator production line. This improvement reportedly led to a tenfold production increase. Additionally, it boosted the quality of items sent to customers. Company leaders initially considered installing a conveyor belt with six month lead time. However, they ended up going with AGVs since they had a lead time of only two to four months.

Many warehouse leaders have also pursued AGVs to relieve labor-shortage pressures. Such usage of robots in industrial automation frees humans up to do more value-added tasks while the machines handle duties like moving and storing pallets.

2. Types of Warehouse Robots That Can Pinch and Grip Items

People that invest in warehouse robots usually look for highly functional machines. That’s why many models have articulated arms that let them move similarly to human limbs. However, such robots have limited usefulness unless they can also pick up items without dropping them.

Fortunately, engineers have built feasible solutions to accommodate this requirement. A standalone layer-picking robot can lift up to 825 pounds per layer. These machines also tolerate a large temperature range, making them suitable for taking items from freezers or working in spaces without air conditioning.

Experts say that piece-picking robots have massively improved in just a few years. They can handle a wider variety of items than they once could, even if the products are oddly shaped. In 2021, researchers developed a miniature, multifunctional soft gripper inspired by human hands. Lab tests showed their creation could pick up items ranging from snail eggs to metal washers and polystyrene balls without harming them. Such versatility is vital in a warehouse that could have a tremendous assortment of items.

Amazon engineers are also working on a pinch-grasping robot. Tests showed a prototype achieved a tenfold reduction in product damage due to its gentle but secure grip. Many types of warehouse robots used within the e-commerce company also work with machine learning algorithms. Machines can identify certain items within a cluttered environment and determine the best ways to pick them up safely and effectively.

Most grasping robots used in today’s warehouses utilize suction cups. They work reasonably well, but complications can result. A machine’s suction seal can fail, particularly if a robotic arm moves especially quickly or changes its angle. Plus, compensating for the problem by increasing the suction strength could make product packaging tear. The work done by Amazon’s team could change the future of robots in industrial automation.

3. Autonomous Mobile Robots

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are part of a larger category of robotic technology called cobots. These machines have various safety features that allow them to work around people without staying behind cages or other barriers. Some cobots stop people from suffering long-term arm damage from repetitive and physically taxing tasks.

However, AMRs are usually most valuable for saving people from walking so far during their warehouse shifts. They work similarly to AGVs, but autonomous mobile robots don’t need any guides on the floor to influence their travel paths. Instead, they have advanced mapping technology that allows them to learn the specifics of a space, then navigate around it safely. Even better, these robots can handle spontaneous environmental changes, such as a person suddenly walking in front of them.

Some companies use these types of robots to handle various needs in a warehouse. C-StoreMaster, a convenience store distributor, shows a strong example of the possibilities. That business has a 135,000-square-foot distribution center in Alabama. AMRs take center stage there in helping operations run smoothly.

The business uses different kinds to meet various needs. One handles pallets, another transports shelving, and a third places and retrieves totes from shelves up to 15 feet high. This exploration into the various types of warehouse robots came from leaders’ desire to create the best possible work environment for their team members. That meant keeping the work and site comfortable, air-conditioned, and ergonomically friendly.

The robotic workflow means people only have to touch goods three times. The first occurs when products are unloaded from incoming trucks, and the next happens during order picking. Finally, team members handle the goods during order consolidation before shipping. Otherwise, the AMRs do about 80% of the work.

4. Types of Robots That Predict Human Movement

Warehouse robots are increasingly advanced and safe. However, things can still go wrong. One example occurred when three robots collided with each other and started a fire in the London facility of a grocery delivery brand. The incident required 15 fire engines and approximately 100 firefighters to contain.

Most warehouse workers know injury risk comes with their roles. However, they tend to feel safer if they know robots have numerous features to stop them from accidentally hurting humans. All cobots include design choices such as soft components and moving parts that slow or stop when people get too close. Those are essential, but researchers are still pushing the boundaries to see what else is possible.

Work at KTH Royal Institute of Technology involves developing an artificial intelligence-driven system for robots that can respond to contextual clues. It can identify individual workers and their skeleton models. A robot then relies on this information to predict what an employee will do next. The machine would not necessarily need to disrupt the workflow by slowing down or stopping if people get in the way because it could proactively adjust its movements instead.

However, these types of warehouse robots are also commercially available from at least one company. Robust AI’s Carter robot looks like a dolly but has a motorized base, touch screen, and periscope with several cameras. It uses cameras to scan its surroundings. However, the robot can also identify workers and try to infer what they’re doing from their poses.

5. Robots Available Through Subscription-Based Plans

Many decision-makers are on board with the prospect of deploying numerous types of warehouse robots in their facilities. However, they balk at the associated upfront costs. That hesitation is particularly likely when business leaders have no direct experience using robots.

Fortunately, providers that offer robots-as-a-service (RaaS) subscription plans can alleviate that anxiety. The specifics vary by company. Generally, though, customers pay per-usage rates for robots obtained through rental agreements. The client prices also often include essentials like installation costs, repairs, maintenance, and upgrades. When people can calculate what they’re likely to pay month to month and eliminate surprise expenses, they’re much more likely to be open to using robots in industrial automation efforts.

Locus Robotics pioneered this concept back in 2014. Thus, it’s not a new option but one that’s quickly gaining momentum. That’s especially true as more people become familiar with warehouse robots and begin thinking strategically about how they might use them. The company’s customers reportedly see full returns on investments within six to eight months of installation.

RaaS contracts typically run from nine months to four years. That means it’s easy for customers to decide how much of a commitment they want to make before signing a document and sealing the deal.

When decision-makers already feel confident about the payoffs of using warehouse robots, RaaS may not be the best option. However, when doubts remain, paying for the technology via a subscription plan could let people test the waters.

Robots in Industrial Automation Improve Warehouse Operations

The five robot types discussed here are among those that appear in warehouses most frequently. However, other options exist, too. People are most likely to get the best results from their efforts to use robots if they think carefully about current shortcomings and how high-tech machines could target and improve them.

After they have those areas of focus, they’ll be in an excellent position to research the options, evaluate their budgets, and take other practical steps to turn their plans into realities.

Warehouse robots won’t solve every problem, but these examples show they can help company leaders make meaningful headway in overcoming obstacles and streamlining processes.

Oh, and warehouse robots don’t look as scary as this great robot pic!

Featured Image Credit: Ichad Windhiagiri; Pexels; Thank you!

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technical and industrial journalist. She regularly covers stories about how technology is changing the industrial sector.

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