The boom of advanced technology, including robotic automation, has primed the logistics industry for meeting stringent market demands, setting the stage for unprecedented growth. For many logistics and order fulfillment companies, however, the transition from manual operations to any form of automation can be difficult to say the least.
While a few companies have the means to tackle recent surge demand by building automated warehouses, most decision makers are left with the daunting question of, “where do I start with robotic automation on the floor?” That said, here are some of the most popular options:
Making sure packages get to the correct destination on time is of the utmost importance. The use of extremely accurate and agile robots equipped with the proper end-of-arm tooling, vision peripherals and subsequent software can alleviate the burden on human labor for this highly repetitive task. The most important aspects to consider when choosing the right robotic system for sortation are the size of the product being moved and how far the robot will need to reach. This will help pinpoint the right robot for the application and facilitate peripheral selection. For example:
Small parcels (t-shirts, mobile phones, etc.) may require a 7 to 8 kg robot based more on the reach involved instead of the weight.
Regular packages (mid-size) may require a 12 kg robot based on weight and reach requirements.
Irregular packages (mattresses, tires, etc.) may require a 25 kg (or larger) robot to cope with the large variation of package weights.
Truck Loading / Unloading (Transport from Facility to Facility)
Getting packages off a truck and into a facility can often be chaotic, as they are usually unloaded in an unstructured manner from top to bottom to maximize capacity. The use of a robot fitted with the proper end-of-arm tooling, a capable vision and processing system and suitable conveyor system can quickly, accurately and ergonomically handle packages. Moreover, the use of robotic automation can stack sorted packages in an organized, Tetris-style fashion for transport to the next facility. Several things to keep in mind when choosing the best robotic system for this task are:
Packages must be unloaded in an orderly fashion, with care being taken for fragile items.
Package sizes and types vary greatly, so plan the system accordingly.
Space is limited to the width and height of the truck. As the system is designed, it is vital that the robot be able to reach the entire working volume inside the truck to retrieve or place packages.
Delivery Truck Loading
Similar to facility-to-facility truck loading and unloading, the delivery truck loading process thrives on organization. Since space inside the truck is constrained, boxes must be ordered so they can easily be located for delivery. This can be facilitated by a vision-equipped robot picking boxes from a conveyor, before loading them onto the truck for delivery.
Risks and Issues
Aside from knowing the best place to implement robotic automation in the facility, there are various other details to consider:
From boxes to bags, and everything in between, packaging comes in all shapes and sizes. Not surprisingly, these packages vary in weight and materials, and they have a considerable amount of product that could be moving around on the inside. While hardware selection (i.e., choosing a robot) is paramount, careful considerations will need to be made for the gripper, vision system and software selection. Questions like, “What should the robot do if it cannot pick a package?”, “How will the robot recover from missed picks?” and “Can my robot/gripper deal with a shifting center of gravity inside a package?”, etc. should be addressed.
Speed and Reliability
Robots must be able to sort 1,000 to 1,500 boxes per hour. This speed can be very taxing on a robot and exceed duty cycles, and it is well outside the capabilities of a non-industrial collaborative robot. Choosing the proper robot(s) to meet throughput goals is key. Similarly, to maintain daily quotas, robotic systems have strict uptime requirements, often requiring resolution for issues in under twenty minutes before escalation. This makes performing scheduled maintenance and managing system failures extremely difficult. To alleviate system downtime and minimize robot malfunction, relying on the robot supplier’s support services, such as Yaskawa Support Services, to perform timely maintenance and provide technical assistance (as needed) is suggested.
Since most facilities are set up for manual labor, space is at a premium. Robots must be able to operate safely, while working near a human workforce. This can be difficult. As always, a risk assessment should be completed to help determine the safest configuration possible, and it may also shed light on how to optimize any available floorspace.
Since most logistics and order fulfillment companies are already heavily invested in current infrastructure, retooling everything for robots and automation is nearly impossible without significant investments. For this reason, robots and software must be flexible enough to integrate with the machines and equipment that already exist on the factory floor. Another consideration is that some facilities do not have full HVAC systems, which could infringe on the robot’s operating temperature range.
Solve Your Logistics Issues
To take a deeper dive into the logistics industry and the challenges facing companies today, listen to a live panel discussion with our in-house experts, Wade Hickle (Sr. Director, Product Solutions Group), Mike Antill (Chief Application Engineer), Jack Uhl (Key Account Manager) and Roger Christian (Division Leader, New Business Development). Complexities surrounding robotic automation will be further discussed, along with next steps for starting the integration process.
Michael Castor is a Product Manager