The Evolution of Warehouse Automation


Warehouse Automation 101

Warehouses are large buildings used by manufacturing companies, importers, exporters, wholesalers, and many other businesses. Warehouse employees receive, sort, stock, and prepare goods for distribution. Automation of warehouse operations involves replacing repetitive tasks with automated systems. Eliminating labor-intensive, time-consuming tasks frees workers to focus on responsibilities that add more value to warehouse operations, such as quality control.

Warehouse automation is not a new concept. From the early 1900s through today, the demand for warehouses continues to increase. In this article, we will discuss the evolution of warehouse automation. We will also address advanced technologies and their application to modern warehouse operations.


Warehouse Automation in the Past

From steel conveyor belts introduced in 1901 to the forklift truck introduced in 1917, warehouse operations are on a constant quest to make processes more efficient. The first Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) was invented in the 1950s. Commercial warehouses began using it in the 1960s. The first ASRS equipment was able to place and retrieve items while moving up and down storage racking. Although manually run, the first ASRS equipment offered a more automated, efficient process than ever before.

In the 1980s, warehouses began adopting computer and IT solutions. Software-controlled technologies also became part of warehouse operations. These new technologies offered more precision than ever before. The 2000s introduced robotics to warehouse operations. The Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) and the Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) need tracks for navigation and require some manual operation. Still, they proved to increase efficiency in warehouses.


Robotic Technology in Warehouses Today

Today the use of robotics adds significant value to warehouse operations. Using robotics is good for business because robotic technology makes operations more efficient and potentially increases profits. With robotics, goods-to-person warehouse systems may improve order accuracy levels to 99% or higher. Robotics also make work days more efficient. For example, when employees walk through the warehouse to fulfill orders, walking can account for 50% of their time. The use of robotics can increase employee productivity by decreasing unproductive walking time. Overall, improved productivity may increase potential profits with faster order fulfillment and reduce employee accidents. Also, less walking time can improve employee satisfaction.
Robotic warehouse solutions include:

  • Robotic arm
  • Collaborative bots (co-bots)
  • Mobile rack goods-to-person (GTP) robots
  • Roaming shuttle arms
  • Unit load transporters
  • Bot sorter arms

Robots may also serve to load trucks and assist with lifting. These physical automation solutions help reduce employee labor and increase operational accuracy. In addition to physical automation, warehouses today must have intelligent software solutions.


Artificial Intelligence in Warehouse Management

Simulation of human intelligence processes by computer systems is known as Artificial Intelligence (AI). Natural language processing is a common example of artificial intelligence. Within Gmail, Google uses natural language processing — an AI in Gmail applies an auto-fill function to complete sentences or offer email reply suggestions. Machines can use this same AI technology because devices powered by AI are capable of processing new information and adapting to changes.

AI is a powerful data processing tool that will help improve warehouse operations. Many companies are already using AI in their warehouse operations and distribution centers. Intelligent software powered by AI is applied to dynamic slotting and workforce planning. AI is also applied to performance management, in-warehouse travel optimization, and automation through orchestrating robotics and employees. Software solutions using intelligent technology do not always require extensive training or expertise. User-friendly AI software solutions can be implemented fairly quickly. Applying AI technology in warehouse management can increase productivity by reducing manual engineering time and effort.


Warehouse Automation Trends

Warehouse automation aims to create a self-sufficient supply chain by automating activities and decisions. Through warehouse automation, non-value-adding repetitive processes can become automated tasks. Automation allows employees to focus on value-adding tasks such as quality control. Automation of physical processes and data processing can help improve efficiency in overall warehouse operation, including order fulfillment, inventory management, and many administrative tasks.

Warehouse automation is a hot topic. It is a significant, growing market projected to reach $41billion by 2027. Still, over 80% of warehouses today have no automation in place. Many of those companies are expected to move forward with automation and technology in the coming years. Warehouse automation trends include cloud-based Warehouse Management Systems and machine learning in warehouse labor planning systems. Robotics trends include mobile robots displacing conveyors and mobile Robots as a Service (RaaS). Other warehouse operations automation trends involve using drones, warehouse cleaning processes, and implementing same-day shipping.


Modern Warehouse Operations Today

Recent years have placed significant pressure on modern warehouse operations regarding responsiveness and scalability. Concerns center around labor, capacity, and quality issues. These issues are forcing warehouse operations experts to focus on efficient ways to update outdated processes and data management. Modern warehouse operations must use current technologies to improve communication inside and outside the warehouse. AI technology and machine learning applications can automate many tasks, from data management to physical inventory and order fulfillment. Increasing productivity is a high priority in the face of labor shortages.

With the many challenges facing warehouses today, one thing remains consistent — the demand for warehouse services. A booming online marketplace makes warehouses and warehouse operations an integral part of business for large and small companies. Therefore, it is imperative to understand how a modern warehouse can use updated technology, including AI and robotics, to reduce stress and increase productivity and profitability.

Implementing a few new technologies scattered throughout warehouse operations may seem appealing. This technical fragmentation can impact warehouse operations, customer relations, employee satisfaction, and profitability. A common myth surrounding intelligent solutions involves training time. People equate new technology with the need for extensive training when the opposite is true. Many software solutions and new technologies require less training time than older methods. Modern warehouse operations must adopt up-to-date technologies as quickly as possible to keep up with growing demand.


Cloud Software and Robotics

Implementing a combination of cloud-based software and robotics will help warehouses meet modern fulfillment demands and capitalize on current market developments. Unfortunately, many warehouses still operate with no automation in place. With an ever-increasing demand for warehouse services, it is imperative to find intelligent solutions to put in place quickly and without disrupting current operations. The future of warehouse operations includes people and robots working together.

Cloud-based solutions are still relatively new. One advantage of using a cloud solution is that it eliminates the high costs of installing and maintaining servers. Regarding warehouses, phasing out the need for server space means more dedicated warehouse space. Another significant advantage of using a web-based software solution is the capability for automatic upgrades. Cloud-based systems set you up for success because they are flexible and scalable.

GrayOrange has developed GreyMatter cloud-based Software and a Ranger Robot Series for warehouse settings. Our intelligent software integrates with Ranger Robot and other third-party hardware to meet you where you are, allowing you to implement AI-powered solutions quickly and affordably. We’re ready to help you find modern solutions for your warehouse operations, so contact us if you’d like to learn more.

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