Warehouses are ripe for robotics

Aug. 11, 2020
Sheila Kennedy says materials handling robots are tackling lift work in harsh environments and monitoring their own condition.

Smart warehouses are becoming more robotic than ever. New approaches to designing, simulating, and monitoring robotic systems optimize the investment and help avoid issues such as collisions and downtime. Innovative robotic equipment solutions automate repetitive materials movement tasks, allowing personnel to assume safer, more thought-provoking work.

About the Author: Sheila Kennedy

Robotic systems engineering and management

Design and engineering services are helping to reset warehouse systems and processes for the present business climate. “Technologies such as robotics, analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning have a key role in reshaping the post-COVID factories and warehouses that are operating with a reduced workforce and increased social distancing,” says Prabhakar Shetty, global head of digital manufacturing services at L&T Technology Services (LTTS).

Using LTTS’ Frugal Manufacturing approach (flexible, remote, unconventional, glocal, and agile), engineers can build multiple what-if simulation models to analyze optimum staffing, inventory, warehousing, and throughput. The Frugal approach provides organizations with a ready basis for line expansion, new product development, agile sourcing, and remote asset care, Shetty explains.

Siemens’ Tecnomatix Process Simulate helps to assess and optimize working conditions in manual workplaces and configure work areas for employees and robots. Tecnomatix Plant Simulation for Warehousing and Material Handling supports all phases of the intralogistics process, “from conceptual design, through detailed analysis, all the way through virtual commissioning and operations with the closed-loop digital twin,” says Noam Ribon, senior consultant for the manufacturing engineering segment of Siemens Digital Industries Software.

Spring water bottler and Siemens customer Finn Spring uses Plant Simulation to test new ideas in a digital twin before implementing them in a fully automated high-bay warehouse. “As e-commerce explodes, so does the relentless push for warehousing and material handling systems to have a larger capacity, perform faster, and more important than ever, be flexible,” observes Ribon.

The new MHS Insights solution from Material Handling Systems (MHS) helps warehouses and distribution centers optimize robotic system uptime through condition monitoring. It uses IoT sensors and system data to monitor handling systems, provide timely equipment maintenance recommendations and health assessments, and enable predictive maintenance.

“With MHS Insights, our goal isn’t to cover every single motor or gear in a facility with sensors. Our approach is more targeted, focusing on the most critical components to put the right data to work and provide insights operations can trust, easily translate into service action, and use for system lifecycle planning,” says John Sorensen, senior vice president of lifecycle performance services at MHS.

Automated robotic applications

Robotizing material movements is cost effective and allows workers to focus on more advanced, skill-dependent tasks. IFS customer Cheer Pack, a spouted-pouch manufacturer, expects to save more than $1.5 million per year using automated robots to haul materials around its U.S. factory warehouse and shop floor.

IFS Labs orchestrated the fleet of autonomous vehicles fitted with sensors such as laser scanners and 3D cameras that navigate the Cheer Pack factory. “They are triggered by a shop order production process generated in IFS’s ERP application,” explains Bas de Vos, vice president of IFS Labs. “When a robot is low on power, it sends itself back to its bay to recharge, and its open tasks go to other robotic vehicles’ queues, which are optimized to ensure high efficiency in the flow of data and parts throughout the factory at any point in time.”

Two new receiving solutions are available from Honeywell Robotics, part of the Honeywell Intelligrated family of automated material handling solutions. A robotic unloader unloads trucks and containers in a picking or sweeping mode, simplifying an otherwise hot, dirty, and dangerous job. An automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) enables high-density storage of cartons or cases by shuttling them into the smallest space possible.

Matt Wicks, chief robotics solutions architect at Honeywell Robotics, says the culmination of rising consumer expectations, a shrinking labor pool, and high order volumes are rapidly driving demand for more automation in warehouses and distribution centers worldwide. “Today’s robotics solutions – including our robotic unloader and AS/RS – are much smarter and more advanced in order to function in the warehousing environment,” he adds.

Warehouse robotics solutions from Boston Dynamics include Handle, a mobile robot for unloading and moving boxes, and Pick, a vision processing solution that reduces robot dwell times and increases pick rates. The company recently announced a partnership with OTTO Motors to coordinate the interaction between Handle and OTTO autonomous mobile robots.

Technology Toolbox

This article is part of our monthly Technology Toolbox column. Read more from Sheila Kennedy.

About the Author

Sheila Kennedy | CMRP

Sheila Kennedy, CMRP, is a professional freelance writer specializing in industrial and technical topics. She established Additive Communications in 2003 to serve software, technology, and service providers in industries such as manufacturing and utilities, and became a contributing editor and Technology Toolbox columnist for Plant Services in 2004. Prior to Additive Communications, she had 11 years of experience implementing industrial information systems. Kennedy earned her B.S. at Purdue University and her MBA at the University of Phoenix. She can be reached at [email protected] or

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