It has been a while since we first heard talking about driverless vehicles: self-driving cars, trucks, autonomous robots and drones have an enormous potential to disrupt the supply chain industry. These technologies, that once seemed being part of the distant future, now become a reality.
The implementation of driverless technologies in the supply chain has already started. According to The 2017 MHI Annual Industry Report, 8% of the survey respondents are already using driverless vehicles and drone-technologies and about 30% are planning to adopt them in 1-5 years.
This technology, once implemented, provides enormous benefits, but also certain risks. The deployment of automated vehicles demands a high level of control and this process can be controlled more easily in a limited space with a restraint amount of people, such as a warehouse for instance.
There have already been some experiments on using autonomous transport and robots in warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing facilities. Driverless vehicles and robots are now being used for moving products in a warehouse, order pick and pack operations and inventory control. For example, autonomous robots can bring products to human pickers at a work station instead of the traditional way when employees move around a warehouse. That enables to considerably increase productivity. Unloading and put away process can also become fully automated soon.
Thanks to developed software, sensors and cameras, autonomous vehicles can drive themselves to a desired destination, maneuvering safely around people and objects. They might receive electronic orders automatically, use bar codes to navigate within a warehouse, calculate the best route to their destination and even reroute it depending on the obstacles.
Let’s have a look at four concrete examples on how driverless technologies have been deployed in warehouses.
Autonomous mobile robots
GEODIS implemented autonomous mobile robots to do picking operations and transporting goods in its warehouse in Indianapolis, the USA. They can follow human pickers in a location and units are thus picked to the robots and moved by them, instead of human employees pulling the cart. That maximizes productivity and also reduces physical demand on workers. You can find more information about this pilot project in the press release here.
Collaborative robots – cobots
As we can see from the previous example, robots can work safely alongside people, and that allows us to talk about the term “collaborative robot” or “cobot”.
Moreover, robots are getting smarter, and they are now able to not only move products in facilities, but do much more. Thanks to artificial intelligence technologies, they can learn motor tasks, for instance in manufacturing process.
These technologies can also be deployed in warehouses. An example to illustrate this deployment is a test project done by GEODIS in Italy. An industrial cobot from the company called Rethink Robotics was used for kitting and co-packing operations. As you can see at the picture, this machine, called Sawyer, is a 7-axis robotized arm.
It is trained by humans to do simple repetitive tasks, such as combining products in a kit or other types of operations. All that the operator has to do, is to show the robot how to move its arm in order to fulfil the desired action.
Thus, human workers can concentrate on more interesting tasks, of higher added value.
The development of an autonomous forklift capable to navigate safely alongside human workers has been an objective for a project called ILIAD (Intra-Logistics with Integrated Automatic Deployment). This project brought together robotics specialists in the UK, Sweden, Italy and Germany in order to create next-generation automated guided vehicles (AGVs). They are aimed to fulfill such operations as packing, palletizing and transporting goods. Find out more about the experiment here.
Drones work on the same principles as ground-based autonomous vehicles. Companies
currently employ them for various services, for example for last-mile delivery.
As for warehouse uses of drones, GEODIS (in collaboration with Delta Drone), uses drones in some of its facilities to guarantee inventory management. This innovative solution enables to handle inventory in an automated way by flying drones, during the hours when the site is closed. Find out more here.
These are just some examples showing that using self-driving vehicles and robots in contract logistics is becoming a reality. The numerous benefits comprise increased efficiency and accuracy, as well as health and safety benefits.
Besides, this kind of robots are mobile and can be moved quickly from one location to another according to the demand. Installation of robots in a warehouse will likely take less time than deployment of other automated solutions, such as auto-conveyors etc.
What companies should do now is exploring the possibilities that self-driving vehicles offer them. And remember that deployment of new technologies is not a goal, but a tool to get more efficient results.