Smart Item Robotics enabling gradual shift to fully robotised DCs

Vanderlande’s Smart Items Robotics technology

In today’s e-commerce and retail market, consumer expectations are at an all-time high. Online shopping habits not only fuel the expansion of distribution centres (DCs), but create exciting opportunities to develop new business models to meet the increasing demand.

Over the coming years, a technological paradigm shift is expected as rising labour costs – coupled with a shrinking workforce – begin to take hold. This will rapidly create the need for e-commerce businesses and retailers across the world to start robotising the process steps in their supply chain.

The right solutions

There are a number of emerging solutions that can help retailers to bridge this gap to future production, as Vanderlande’s Global Sales Director Warehousing & Parcel Ruben Jakobs explains: “We already have proven technology and it is possible to robotise a significant portion of the supply chain with our STOREPICK and FASTPICK solutions. Within these, Smart Item Robotics (SIR), also known as collaborative robotics – or cobots – is a crucial part.”

Gradual integration

Alongside the possibilities, the remaining question for businesses is how to start integrating new robotic solutions? After all, one can’t simply overhaul existing warehousing processes without frustrating daily operations. Jakobs sees the solution as a gradual process: “Our long-term vision is that businesses might not need any workers in a DC where robots are installed. However, this will take time and DC processes change slowly.”

Initially, adding a collaborative robot to a manual workplace, also known as ‘retrofitting’, will not fully remove the need for manual labour. Existing cobots are not able to perform all human tasks, but in time, they will advance and take on more work, enabling human operators to support multiple cobots.

As technology continues to advance, the opportunity exists to fine-tune the approach to robotics, process by process, product group by product group. It is most likely that incremental investments in cobots will come first by installing a low number of units. For example, to perform order picking.

A strong case

Jakobs continues: “A good example is the cobot that we have installed at the Würth DC in Riihimaki, Finland. Here, SIR will develop and learn what type of products it can handle. In this way, Würth can learn how to better enhance the picking process on site and the most logical division of work. It is striving for total efficiency in human and cobot cooperation, so that the strengths of each can be optimised.”

One of the unique advantages to e-commerce companies and food retailers of investing in collaborative robots is their adaptability. As algorithms improve, it is predicted that robots will gradually ‘learn’ more, increase their capabilities and assume the full function of a person within a warehouse.

With the heightened need for automation, demand for new solutions will develop rapidly. Growing market acceptance will subsequently drive volume growth, which allows new technology to become more price competitive and attainable. This will further increase the relevance of automation in the future.

If you are interested in learning more about Smart Item Robotics, please contact Vanderlande Australia Sales Director, Michael Jee at michael.jee@vanderlande.com

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