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Warehouse Automation 101: A Beginner’s Guide

By June 5, 2024Uncategorized

Autonomous technology continues to make an impact on the supply chain. The autonomous supply chain, as I am writing about it here, applies to moving goods without human intervention (to some degree at least). While there is plenty of talk about autonomous transportation, including drones and self-driving trucks, warehouse automation is at the forefront of the autonomous supply chain.

As part of our Supply Chain 101 series, we bring you a beginner’s guide to various supply chain technologies. Today, I’m going to write a little bit about warehouse automation and control (WAC), and the different components that comprise this market. Warehouse automation and control is a term representing a broad range of warehouse technology that includes the mechatronics, on-board controls (equipment controls), and off-board controls such as a material flow controller, of an automated warehouse system. Subsystems include conveyors and sortation, automated storage and retrieval, carousels, palletizing and depalletizing, autonomous warehouse vehicles, and more.

ARC Advisory Group’s research on the warehouse automation market shows (once again) that the fulfillment requirements from the ongoing, widespread growth in e-commerce continue to be the most prevalent factor stimulating demand growth for warehouse automation systems. In fact, retail and other verticals such as logistics providers (parcel) experienced rapid growth from 2019 on. However, recent activity suggests that capacity has been overbuilt by some large e-commerce providers, leading to select project cancellations and postponements.

As mentioned above, there are different components that make up warehouse automation and control. I will touch on two components that are the most exciting to me: autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS).

Warehouse Automation: AMRs

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are now commonplace in many warehouses, helping warehouse workers to fulfill orders quickly and efficiently. There are a few different types of robots that companies are considering, and each has its own unique set advantages. The key for AMRs is that they enable workers to be more productive due to constant collaboration. This is especially true as warehouse labor is becoming harder to find and more expensive to train. There are two main types of AMRs – those based on fleet management and systems that rely on picking optimization:

Fleet management solutions typically operate with bigger payloads and route the robots from an origin to a destination.
Pick optimization robots integrate the movement of machines and people in a process flow designed to increase picking throughput. Pick optimization robots support picking to cartons and totes and consequently have a small payload.

One of the biggest concerns about AMRs is how warehouse workers will interact with the bots. The fear is that the bots will get in the way of their human counterparts, cause slowdowns, or worse, cause dangerous working conditions. Generally speaking, from all of the companies we have spoken with, within a week or two of deployment, employees were used to seeing the bots scurrying around the warehouse and were no longer concerned about collisions.

Warehouse Automation: AS/RS

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are computer-controlled systems responsible for the automated movement and placement of goods, to and from set storage locations within a warehouse. The Material Handling Institute (MHI) lists a number of technology subcategories within the AS/RS category. These subcategories include:

Traditional AS/RS – Fixed aisle systems, typically comprising a storage and retrieval machine (SRM) that runs on rails or similar structure, consisting of a chassis, vertical mast, and lifting carriage with an insertion/extraction load handling device; a racking system from which the AS/RS can automatically store and retrieve loads; and the system can also include an automated aisle transfer car. System includes pickup and delivery (P&D) points.
Shuttle Systems – Shuttle systems differ from unit load and mini-load AS/RS due to the independent movement of the horizontal shuttles and the lift systems. The load handling device is attached to the shuttles, allowing each shuttle to insert or extract the desired handling unit – usually a tote, carton, or tray. Some shuttle systems include 2D; independent x and z axis horizontal shuttles/load carrying vehicles; or more recently commercialized systems with “robots” that move independently within and outside of racking structure. System includes pickup and delivery (P&D) points.
Cube-Based Automated Storage Systems – Cube-based automated storage systems consist of a three-dimensional storage grid containing storage bins with automated vehicles that move laterally along two axis on the interconnected gridded track structure, on top and/or on bottom of three dimensional storage grid. Each vehicle is equipped with a lift for picking up, carrying, and placing storage bins in the storage grid. Vehicles communicate wirelessly with control system. System includes pickup and delivery (P&D) points.

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