Tests have shown they’re good at helping pickers, counting inventories. Battery life still an issue for drones.

Amazon has pioneered the use of robots in its large warehouses
Amazon has pioneered the use of robots in its large warehouses

They may not be replacing warehouse workers, at least not yet, but robotics are increasingly being introduced in warehouses to help workers pick orders and manage inventory. Logistics providers like DHL Supply Chain, Geodis, and Kenco and retailers like Amazon and Walmart are some of the companies leading the way in this area.
DHL Supply Chain announced last month that it will begin a pilot to test using autonomous robotics at a facility in Tennessee on behalf of customers in the life sciences sector. The LocusBots, as they are called, will be tested as a picker companion for warehouse order fulfillment.

Geodis signed an agreement last year with Delta Drone to jointly develop a solution for automating warehouse inventory using drones. Following the delivery of a prototype, and testing the system at Geodis warehouses in France, industrial development and an international rollout are expected later this year.

Kenco Logistics’ Innovation Lab has been investigating the use of drones in warehousing and fulfillment. “There has been a great deal of publicity about the use of drones in last-mile delivery,” said research manager Matt McLelland. “While that has great potential, there are other areas of the supply chain where drones can be employed now, or very soon.”

Robotic Race and the Warehouse

Industrial robots are becoming a more common sight in factories and warehouses. In 2013, there were 1.2 million robots in use worldwide, a figure which is expected to increase to 1.9 million by the end of this year. Japan leads the way in use of industrial robots with over 306,000 robots in use, compared to 237,000 in North America, 182,000 in China, and 175,000 each in South Korea and Germany.

The use of robots and drones in warehouses is now considered an emerging best practice, according to a recent report from the Haslam College of Business of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. (See sidebar on page 4.) As that document notes, drones are properly thought of as aerial robots.

Five years from now robots will be standard in the supply chain, according to Peter Sondergaard, global head of research with tech analysts Gartner. “Five percent of companies with complex picking operations will pilot mobile self-navigating and smart warehouse robots,” he said.

Amazon has pioneered the use of robots in its large warehouses with units being supplied by Kiva Systems, since renamed Amazon Robotics. Robotic units bring pods to workers with requested items in response to orders.

“It’s a capital-intensive investment,” said Austin Grandt, the CEO and co-founder of Export Abroad, “but they can increase productivity and cost savings in the long run for large-scale warehouse operations.”

Costs savings are often the rationale for companies investing in robotics for the supply chain. The robots are getting more sophisticated and adept at performing tasks and the cost differential with humans is narrowing, to the advantage of robots. Estimates for labor cost savings from automation and robotics average 16% globally, while South Korea has seen costs slashed by 33%.

DHL Pilot

The DHL pilot is using units that work collaboratively alongside warehouse staff, helping to quickly locate and transport pick items, so pickers don’t have to push carts or carry bins. The LocusBots are examples of what are called “follow-me robots,” also known as collaborative robots, or co-bots. The human picker picks and the robot delivers in this type of operation, thought to be most useful for speeding e-commerce picking. The cart follows the picker, and when full, goes off to shipping while another empty cart takes its place.

The DHL pilot will utilize different picking strategies with the LocusBots in the warehouse. It will also assess the robot’s ability to communicate with the picker and the warehouse management system, how it navigates the warehouse, and its overall versatility.

“DHL Supply Chain’s initial implementation of this pilot program within the life sciences sector will inform the potential for broader deployment across different parts of our business,” said Adrian Kumar, Vice President of Solutions Design, DHL Supply Chain North America.

Geodis and Delta Drone tested a drone prototype at Geodis logistics sites in Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône near Paris and Plaisance-du-Touch near Toulouse, France. The prototype consisted of a quadcopter drone fit with high-resolution cameras and a ground-based robot equipped with a battery providing the necessary energy for the system.

The system proved capable of identifying pallets in low-light conditions using several dedicated electronics and computer systems. The system includes real-time reporting and integration with Geodis’ warehouse management system. Industrial production and a rollout of the system is expected later this year, according to a Geodis spokesperson.

Walmart has been testing drones to catalog inventory, noted McLelland, who added that Kenco is working with a drone startup company that uses onboard bar code scanning to assess inventory and communicate that information in batch—and not in real time—to SAP, a leading enterprise software system.

One key to more widespread drone usage in the warehouse is the ability to have them work autonomously, that is, without human intervention. One capability that autonomy demands is localization, the ability of the drone to know where it is and where it’s going. But indoor drones have yet to master that task. While outdoor drones can use GPS technology as part of a localization solution, indoor drones will require specialized software to support collision avoidance systems, according to McLelland.

Another hurdle to be overcome will involve advancements in battery technology, which has not moved forward as quickly as the objects they were designed to power. “Most drones operate for 15 to 22 minutes,” said McLelland. “That’s not enough time to accomplish many tasks.”

Occupational safety regulators and insurance companies have also yet to weigh in on drones. “They don’t yet know quite what to make of them,” said McLelland. “That’s why some companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

One issue often lost in the discussion is that, while, robots may eventually replace many warehouse workers, humans usually have to operate front-end and back-end robotics systems. Warehouse robotics may actually create some human jobs, but the skills required will be substantially different from today’s typical warehouse worker.