Sustained by developments like computer vision and machine learning, modern-day robots efficiently and safely carry out bin-handling, replenishment, picking, packaging, and palletizing tasks collaboratively or above humans in warehouses, manufacturing, and distribution centers.
The warehousing industry is one of the most significant contributors to the increasing demand for robotics. Moreover, with the latest technological advancements, the variety of warehouse robots to choose from keeps growing. This doesn’t precisely make it any easier for warehouse owners to determine which warehouse robot to deploy for specific operations.
There is a vast range of automation options for warehouse operators, from automated guided vehicles and mobile robots to heavy-duty robot arms and lift trucks. However, with the focus shifting from picking cases and pallets to picking individual items, there has been an explosion of ASRS (automated storage and retrieval systems) technologies available in the market to help manufacturing, distribution, and warehouse operations make this change.
This comprehensive guide looks at different kinds of warehouse robots while mainly focusing on ASRS warehouse robots and their many types and uncovers the many benefits of ASRS robots that can help warehouse owners carry out the most essential warehouse tasks.
What Are Warehouse Robots?
Warehouse robots are specialized computerized robots used to complete the most essential warehouse tasks like picking, sorting, packing, and transporting goods.
Recently, warehouse robots have incorporated far more advanced processing capabilities and sensors and are popularly supported by warehouse management systems (WMS) to help optimize their efficiency.
Due to these advancements, warehouse robots are quickly establishing themselves as a vital part of the supply chain. As a matter of fact, the international automation marker has already been projected to evolve to $27 billion by 2025, meaning it will more than double its value from $13 million in 2018.
This signifies that a significant number of businesses are realizing that investing in warehouse robots is bound to deliver an array of benefits to their operation. Numerous warehouse robots are used across the industry, serving many purposes, from picking and stock movement to deliveries.
Some of the most commonly used warehouse robots that you may find to be of use for your own operation include:
- Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
- Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS)
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)
- Articulated Robot Arms
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
AGVs are robots used for the transportation of materials and stock around the warehouse, mostly from section to section or carrying the picked stock to a packing area. Depending on the AGV model, robots might transport the load in a specific way or have additional functions.
For example, some models are engineered to pick up and move pallets or tow a trailer, while others carry loads themselves. Some of them have forklift capabilities to maneuver loads at a height.
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
AMRs are sophisticated robots that can steer dynamic warehouse environments independently. Unlike AGVs, AMRs do not require any additional guidance, using an array of audial, visual, touch-based, and thermal sensors, along with computers and onboard maps.
Consequently, they can perceive their surroundings and make road planning decisions to an extent where they can reroute them in the event of an obstacle.
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS)
ASRS is a fully automated robotic system that can computerize the process of putting away goods along with moving them for shipping. They are usually large-scale systems that comprise a crane or shuttle on fixed tracks that can quickly put down or pick up items through aisles in a warehouse.
This operation is typically controlled by progressive warehouse software that can navigate the stock’s movement as and when needed.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
UAVs, typically referred to as drones, are another kind of warehouse robot that combines impressive flight capabilities with functionality in logistics. These remarkable devices are often equipped with scanners and cameras for stocktaking purposes and accuracy, along with systems for picking and carrying lightweight cargo.
Articulated Robotic Arms
Articulated robotic arms are another warehouse robot that comprises a multi-jointed limb that can easily move, pick up, and put down stock. They’re typically used to move pallets and heavy items for picking, packing, storing, receiving, and vehicle loading purposes.
However, articulated robotic arms are incredibly versatile and can be easily adapted for an entire range of tasks.
What Are Warehouse Robotics Used For?
Warehouse robots can help in a vast array of essential warehouse tasks. Due to this, they can play a significant role in warehouse automation, which in return can deliver many benefits for your business. Here are the different kinds of operations that can be assisted with warehouse robots.
Picking is a task that pertains to locating and extracting the correct stock of items to fulfill an order. It is the kind of work those warehouse robots are primarily involved in. Numerous options can enhance this process, whether the warehouse robot assists a job or performs the picking itself.
Robots are usually deployed to work collaboratively with the workers in the warehouse, frequently as a guide to the following picking location. Progressive robots can plot the most efficient routes around the warehouse and make decisions on the go as new orders flow in.
As a result, workers can efficiently steer the space without making any incorrect turns or wasting time guessing where to go.
One of the most used approaches is goods-to-person picking, which is a process where the robots finish the picking task before going back to an employee so the order can be processed. This approach minimizes the time workers have to spend moving around the warehouse and lets them focus on more challenging aspects of fulfilling the orders.
On the other hand, warehouse robots like autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are refined enough to pick a stock and navigate around the warehouse before the goods are transported.
When done manually by human workers, sorting can be incredibly exhaustive and time-consuming. Fortunately, with the development of warehouse robots that are facilitated with sensors and cameras, this tedious task can now be completed faster and more efficiently than workers, with a considerably lower margin of error.
This can be incredibly beneficial if your warehouse uses a zone or batch picking method, where several items are brought together and require being sorted into specific orders.
A warehouse robot completing this time-consuming task can easily scan and determine inventory swiftly, then sort them into their respective groups. Thanks to their access to inventory data, optics, and sorting algorithms, this task can practically be automated. Hence, there is no requirement for human input.
Robots can also be used at many other stages of the overall process, such as returns, replenishments, or when you need to sort the parcels once they are packed.
Transporting inventory in and out of a warehouse is one of the most pain-staking, time-consuming, and laborious tasks for workers. However, this process can be significantly simplified and improved with the help of warehouse robots. Whether individual things need to be picked, sorted, or moved, or entire heavy bins or pallets need to be relocated, robots can help.
AMRs are fully capable of picking and transporting duties on their own, thus minimizing the need for human workers to move about the floor of the warehouse. However, many other kinds of robots can assist in inventory transportation, such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs).
For instance, AGVs can move entire batches of picked goods of substantial loads along pre-programmed routes without any help. On the other hand, drones can accurately pick and move items from hard-to-access locations. And then comes the ASRS that can wholly computerize the entire stock movement of warehouses.
Replenishment and Putaway
Warehouse robots can also help in replenishing stocks and putaway tasks, both by handling the job’s labor-intensive parts and by making sure that the stock levels are as up-to-date as possible. Some forward-thinking robots can even complete stock counts and keep track of inventory levels, then update the available information via the WMS.
By automating the stock replenishment, these robots can ensure that backorders are kept to a minimum, and there are no stockouts. When it comes to the actual task of putaway or replenishments of stock, warehouse robots can also help.
The likes of AGVs can maneuver items to where they are required. However, cutting-edge robots like AMRs can perform task interleaving, which means they receive both replenishment and picking tasks simultaneously and perform them most efficiently. This may indicate performing the tasks on their own or assisting a worker in the optimal order of managing them.
How ASRS Robots Help in Manufacturing, Distribution, and Warehousing
ASRS is a warehouse automation technology that stores, handles, and retrieves materials on demand. This technology varies and may entail several components such as cranes, shuttles, vertical or horizontal carousels, vertical lift modules (VLMs), mini-loads, unit-loads, and robots.
ASRS is primarily designed to automate the most essential tasks such as sorting, staging, loading and unloading, storage, putting away, and order picking.
An ASRS robot is ideal for applications where high volumes of inventory travel in and out of distribution or management operations.
In general, with manufacturing, you’d use an ASRS robot for kitting operations, sequence buffering, work-in-process (WIP), or storage of a finished item. Warehousing and Distribution operations use ASRS robots for dynamic replenishment, goods-to-person picking, and order consolidation.
Using an ASRS increases efficiency and throughput as well as saves space by reducing the floor footprint used by going up rather than going out. ASRS systems are well-suited to be used with high-density storage, where stock is vertically stored in a compact space. This kind of layout is not practical to direct with a human workforce.
However, with a comprehensive ASRS solution that has access to the complete inventory, stock can be moved swiftly and efficiently with zero safety concerns. Stock can also be controlled and monitored with a minimal margin for human errors.
Different Types of ASRS
ASRS primarily depends on the kind of technology to automate load transportation. Here are the most popularly used types of ASRS systems.
Unit-load ASRS is used for substantial loads that weigh several hundred or thousand pounds, such as pallets or cases of items. It mainly uses moveable-aisle or fixed-aisle cranes.
They’re relatively smaller than unit-load ASRS solutions and are primarily used to handle lightweight loads. Mini-load ASRS comprises cranes and shuttles, making them better suited for warehouses with slender aisles.
Vertical Lift Modules (VLMs)
They’re automatic extractors or inserters placed in the middle of a column of trays that help retrieve and store goods in the trays.
Horizontal carousels leverage bins and horizontally rotate them to deliver the goods. They’re primarily used for sorting tiny parts and pieces.
Much like horizontal carousels, the vertical carousels rotate vertically, which helps optimize the use of storage space.
Shuttles are primarily found in manufacturing and warehousing facilities that manage totes, trays, and cartons.
This is one of the most progressive robotic picking systems designed to work in a cubical storage grid.
How to Know That You Need ASRS
Firstly, you need to evaluate your warehouse operations to identify the most significant pain points. Given that each warehouse is different, you will find several things that might or might not reveal the situation in other warehouses. Still, some challenges can only be overcome by the help of an AS/RS, and they are:
- Extreme (too cold or too hot) work conditions
- Low productivity and efficiency
- Losing track of items in a warehouse
- High upkeep costs
- Frequent worker injuries
- Constant errors in product/parts storage and retrieval operations
- Lesser use of vertical storage space
Implementing an ASRS
While deliberating whether you need an automated storage and retrieval system or not, implementing one isn’t as challenging as you may have thought. The installation of an automated warehouse system can easily be handled by professionals.
It isn’t done ad-hoc, but only after a comprehensive inspection of your facilities. In general, each automated warehouse system comprises two significant components, namely:
- Storage and retrieval equipment – this is the hardware that performs the task of loading and offloading items.
- Computer management system – it enables operators to schedule storage/retrieval processes and keep track of the inventory details such as items origin, storage duration, and location.
Modern AS/RS can be installed quicker as they occupy a relatively small footprint, enabling you to optimize your warehouse’s floor space. Moreover, they are easy to use, so your training and onboarding time is also drastically minimized.
Advantages of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems
Over the years, ASRS has gained a lot of traction as more and more warehouses, materials handling operations, and order fulfillment operations have fully embraced the new technology.
And it perfectly makes sense why, thanks to the numerous advantages of using ASRS to fully or partially automate warehouses. Here are the most significant benefits of ASRS to better help you find out why implementing ASRS makes complete sense for your operation(s).
Whether due to hunger, fatigue, distraction, emotional or psychological stress, one thing is for sure: Human beings inevitably make mistakes. When humans make mistakes while working with heavy machinery like forklifts, there is a high chance of accidents.
Incorporating ASRS systems into your operation enables you to eradicate this unforeseen human element to some extent by replacing human employees with machines that don’t get distracted or tired.
As a result, this can positively impact a specific operation by increasing safety, thus minimizing accidents and damage to the structures, equipment, and product.
Reduced Labor Costs
By implementing an ASRS in your business operation, you can minimize your labor costs in several ways. In extreme scenarios, some operations may employ just one ASRS to replace all picking labor, freeing employees to pay attention to other more productive tasks.
Even though this isn’t typical, the potential efficiencies attained by a well-thought-out and perfectly executed ASRS can positively impact your profitability.
By eradicating the need to expand your labor force, this one-time investment of buying and implementing the ASRS system has the opportunity to eliminate the ongoing costs that follow with a new hire like payroll taxes, healthcare, training, salary increases, etc.
Increased Accuracy, Productivity, and Efficiency
Naturally, human beings are prone to making errors, regardless of how diligent or well-trained they are. In addition to causing safety concerns or damaging the product, these errors might also affect workflows that result in inefficiency.
A pallet of products delivered from storage to the wrong department might cause confusion, bottlenecks, and ultimately a shutdown of order processing till the error gets fixed.
By allowing ASRS systems to handle the constituents of your operation that can be computerized, you can remove these efficiencies and ultimately minimize wastage and increase output. Moreover, all of this enables your operation to become more profitable and accurate.
Fewer Labor Constraints
Even if your operation has the required funds to expand the workforce with new hires, plenty of external factors (job market, geography, demographic trends, etc.) can constrain the labor supply and make expansion difficult. ASRS eradicates some of these constraints by letting automation take human workers' place.
This means that warehouse workers can be redirected to tasks of a higher value that make your operation far more profitable. On the other hand, all the lower-value, monotonous tasks can be handled by technology.
Can be Modular
Even though an ASRS can be a costly outlay for a specific operation to absorb, one of the more overlooked perks of ASRS is the fact they can be modular.
An operation can transfer the different inventory segments into ASRS one at a time - for instance, giving priority to fast-moving products first - limiting the startup expense and enabling you to gradually transition to total automation.
Better Brand Image
Investing in warehouse robotics such as ASRS clearly demonstrates that you are an innovative and forward-thinking brand to your customers as well as current suppliers and any business you are looking to win in the coming future.
Better Use of Space
ASRS is beneficial for operations that are limited by small footprints. Using the available space in a facility more efficiently, ASRS eradicates the need for a pricey expansion or redesign.
ASRS usually calls for narrower aisles than do human-operated equipment like forklifts. Racks can salvage the vertical space, and automation can allow for high-density storage that’s challenging to obtain by conventional means.
Now that you know all about ASRS warehouse robots, you must have a better idea of what they can offer your business. As part of your warehouse automation plan, you can undoubtedly enhance how your warehouse works and access the many benefits ASRS can offer.
However, to ensure your ASRS robots can work to their maximum potential, you should make sure to have the right ASRS system installed in place to support them.
The ideal solution would be to include 2 or more distinctive goods-to-person ASRS technologies, strategically matching the system to specific inventory profiles and handling characteristics needed to create a comprehensive hybrid solution.