The crucial role played by logistics in recent years has contributed to stimulating greater attention to research and technological development in the sector.
Added to this is the recent surge in the eCommerce sector, which has only made the need for optimized, efficient warehouses in step with the expectations of the modern customer even more evident.
Precisely for this reason, for many medium-large companies, the choice of a transition from the traditional warehouse to an automatic warehouse is, today, not only “obligatory”, but also the most suitable to respond to the new needs of the market.
"Robot logistics" is nothing new, but it is in the era of industry 4.0 that the supply chain has really begun to enjoy the benefits of automation.
Automatic warehouse: what it is and how it works
By "automatic warehouse" we mean a logistics center equipped with the latest software and Robotic Process Automation technologies that allow for the optimization of processes within the structure: from storage to shipping.
In the traditional warehouse, the staff is responsible for moving the incoming and outgoing goods and accompanying the products in the packaging and shipping phases. In the automatic warehouse, the human function is that of supervision and control and does not involve repetitive, dangerous or alienating activities. In this case, the products are, in fact, handled, catalogued and stored directly by ad hoc machines, managed through the integration of digital devices, which allow adjusting the characteristics and volume of the activity, based on specific needs.
The level and type of automation within a warehouse can vary: it is not uncommon, for example, to find a combination of different automatisms within the same warehouse. In general, however, the approach within automated warehouses is the goods-to-man one, according to which it is the products that move towards the employees and not vice versa.
It may also happen that only one part of the warehouse is automated, to meet particular efficiency and budget requirements.
How does an automatic warehouse work?
First of all, integration and operation of the technologies involved in the various phases of the logistics chain depend on the presence of a Warehouse Management System (WMS), a software for warehouse management, which allows control and optimization.
The WMS allows you to regulate the various activities carried out within the logistics center and to connect, via a terminal, to machines used in the warehouse. This way, you can set automation settings and control operations.
Let's now go into more details, to understand what are the characteristic elements that allow the operation of an automatic warehouse.
Types of automatic warehouse
Among the main options for an automatic warehouse we find:
- Vertical Warehouse: this is a vertical system with translating drawers capable of extracting trays for picking and providing for subsequent storage.
- Miniload: is a system for handling light loads, with a double or single column structure. The structure is made up of horizontal shelves divided by very narrow corridors, in which the stacker crane moves. The miniloads have the function of recovering the load units stored in the racks and bringing them outside, or in the picking, packaging or shipping area.
- Stacker crane: designed for handling pallets or heavy loads. The shelving can be single or multiple depth.
- Shuttle: in this system, shuttles move along the corridor between the racks in order to pick up and transport the materials to an elevator located at the end of the corridor, where they are lowered to the point of withdrawal.
Each one corresponds to different needs and characteristics, which depend both on the type of goods in the warehouse and on the physical spaces available. In any case, however, they do not completely exclude human input, which remains essential for both the supervision activities and the programming of digital processes by specialized technicians.
The role of robots in logistics
Despite the human contribution therefore remains essential for the proper functioning of the logistics chain, when we talk about automatic warehouses we cannot fail to speak of "robot logistics".
To better understand what the main robotic systems used in the logistics sector are and how they work, a distinction must first be made between two main macro-categories: industrial robots and co-bots.
The former are aimed at replacing the manual labor of man. They are, in fact, used to carry out repetitive or physically exhausting activities and work thanks to sensors capable of collecting information in real-time. For example, stacker cranes belong to this category.
The second, co-bots are called "collaborative robots" and support the work of the operators. They can work autonomously or assisted and are characterized by great versatility. This category includes, for example, the machinery used for the packaging of goods.
Logistics 4.0 has given impetus to the innovations of the RPA sector applied to the supply chain, favoring the development of new prototypes and technologies, to meet increasingly specific needs.
However, to date, we can identify a small number of systems, used in most automatic warehouses, which can be divided into three types:
1. Robot for picking up and storing goods
- Pallet Shuttle: is a shuttle that moves along the racks to pick up the goods stored in the most difficult to reach areas.
- Stacker crane: as previously mentioned, it moves vertically and horizontally along the tracks located between the aisles of the shelves, for the automatic loading and unloading of goods.
2. Robot for goods handling
- Automated guided vehicles and trolleys: The AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle) and LGV (Laser Guided Vehicle) trolleys move independently along the corridors of the warehouse and have a loading platform equipped with forks, useful for handling.
AGV vehicles move along a traced path, following a radio signal. While LGV systems use the triangulation of a laser signal to locate and move within the logistics center.
- Industrial conveyors: they allow the handling of goods through motorized roller conveyors and are divided into roller, chain or belt conveyors. They are particularly efficient when used together with stacker cranes.
- Electroways: these are overhead conveyors, similar to industrial roller conveyors. In this case, however, the rails are not installed on the floor. They are used, in particular, to cover medium distances and transport light goods.
3. Anthropomorphic robots
These are robots that replicate some characteristics of human movement, in particular that of the arms. Inside automatic warehouses they are often used to replace operators in particularly repetitive and alienating operations and clearly increase the efficiency of the logistics chain.
This category includes:
- Anthropomorphic arm: The most common anthropomorphic robot inside warehouses. It consists of a mechanical arm, joints and a wrist, where the gripping device, a sort of "hand", is attached. Through coordinated and programmed movements, it takes the place of man, for example, in precision activities or inside assembly lines.
- Mechanical exoskeleton: this is a PPE (Individual Safety Device), worn by operators with the aim of supporting the body, reducing fatigue and improving ergonomic conditions.
Automatic warehouse: the benefits for companies
The automatic warehouse is the answer to the new imperatives of the contemporary market: speed and flexibility.
In addition, it allows you to maintain high company competitiveness, thanks to the introduction of always new solutions and production techniques.
Once the initial upgrade costs have been exceeded, therefore, having an automated warehouse always proves to be an advantage for companies that decide to take this step.
In particular, we can identify four benefits of the automation of logistics centers:
- Reduced costs
Having an automatic warehouse allows you to significantly reduce housing costs and those relating to maintenance, management of spaces, stocks and inventory.
- Less risk
The use of robots reduces the risk of damage to goods during the storage and handling phases.
- Space optimization
Inside an automatic warehouse, the racks can be developed vertically, without the need to leave room for large corridors for the passage of operators. In this way the space is significantly optimized and can be exploited to the maximum.
- A safer workplace
The automation of the warehouse makes it possible to significantly reduce human errors and risks to the health of operators, raised by alienating or physically demanding activities.
The automatic warehouse and the use of robots are an advantage for companies and an evolution full of opportunities for the logistics sector.
Finally, in order to fully exploit its potential, it is necessary to take into account three key elements:
Warehouse Management System: from data collection to machine handling, the WMS Warehouse Management Software is essential to allow for real optimization.
Maintenance: logistics 4.0 provides all the tools anime at avoiding service interruptions that could block the entire warehouse activity. Preventive maintenance is the first of these, essential to guarantee the resilience of the logistics center.
Training: the constant updating of professionals plays a pivotal role in determining the company's results. Choosing to switch to an automatic warehouse also means preparing your employees for automation and use of the WMS.