Automating the Warehouse with AI, AR, VR and Robotics

7 Big Trends in Warehouse Automation

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Warehouse automation is integral to staying competitive in today’s landscape.

Driving Industry 4.0, and with the support of modern technology, warehouse automation is helping to shape the facilities of tomorrow. Automation trends are making big waves in the industry, right this moment. Here are some of the most popular.

Like one big technology puzzle, everything is coming together to create the long-discussed Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Real-time data, machine learning, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), and advanced robotics are just a few of many technologies behind the steering wheel. What they all have in common, and what they all help power, is the next generation of automation.

"Various technologies are coming together to create Industry 4.0, tech like real-time data, machine learning, the internet of things and robotics. Here are 7 ways they are radically transforming the warehouse." -Emily Newton @ReadRevMag… Click To Tweet

Now, that’s a bold claim to make. The next generation of automation? Where is the proof?

The best answer is to look around. While automation has long been used to simplify rote tasks and handle repetitive ones, today’s automation tools are much more advanced, and not merely automating simple tasks, but coming together to automate workflows, decision-making, and even enabling the autonomous supply chain. This new-age technology is directly influencing the major warehouse trends, too. Here’s how.

1. Automated Picking

Almost gone are the days when workers have to scour a massive warehouse to find very specific goods and fill customer orders. It’s time-consuming, even with an army of human laborers. To combat this, many warehouses are installing auto-picking robots that either do the work or assist their human counterparts, making picking and packing faster and easier than before.

The bots will locate goods, using real-time data and smart RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on packaging, and bring them to a central location or hub. The human laborers can then prepare the goods for shipment. It speeds up the entire process, saves money, and creates a safer environment.

2. Industrial IoT (IIoT)

Everything from lighting to package tracking can be enabled with the help of IIoT, or smart devices. RFID tags, for example, attached to product packaging, can help track every movement of goods within the warehouse, and even beyond.

Many processes can be automated or controlled remotely, improving efficiency, convenience, and much more. Smart lighting solutions could turn off all the warehouse lights when everyone has left the facility, or do the same for individual rooms. It goes way beyond simple motion sensors, with precise schedules, remote access, and power-saving support.

These devices also collect data and pass it on, in real-time, to enable smarter decisions and more proactive operations across the warehouse floor and beyond its walls.

3. Automated Machines

Forklifts, pallet movers, drones, shelving, floor cleaners, and local delivery vehicles can all be automated with the help of big data, machine learning, and remote systems. All of the aforementioned machines actually exist in today’s landscape, and they can complete their work without human input.

Amazon’s Kiva bots are a perfect example of automated machinery in action. They serve as the base for the company’s warehouse shelves, and they can move about to make picking, inventory management, and storage a lot easier. As far as modular solutions go, they’re also highly versatile. Similarly, Tompkins Robotics tSort robot enables autonomous sorting of parcels in the warehouse.

Then there are machines, both in vehicles and loading platforms within the warehouse, that can automate the loading and unloading of trailers. The benefits of such automation are obvious, including speed and efficiency and increased safety of employees.

"By adding elevators, lift platforms, turntables, and conveyors which interface with the automatic loading and unloading systems the rate of truck turns at a dock door increases dramatically." -Jack Smylie, Ancra Systems Click To Tweet

4. Smarter Layouts

A huge element of safety is the general design and layout of a warehouse and all furniture, fixtures, and pinnings. Optimizing the layout to improve safety, while simultaneously improving efficiency and productivity, is difficult, but not impossible. Considering 5 out of every 100 full-time warehouse employees are either injured or become ill each year, building a safer layout is worth the investment.

Automation and big data can help. Automated shelving is just the start, as a reliable flow of data introduces even more opportunities. Information about how the warehouse is used, where employees spend most of their time, and potential injury points, can be used to improve designs. Then, the layout can be updated continuously over time using more generated data.

"A continuous flow of real-time data from connected vehicles, machines, devices and wearables, enables more opportunities for optimization and improving safety." -Emily Newton @ReadRevMag #ArtificialIntelligence #Automation #Robotics Click To Tweet

And if you’re wondering where all of that data might be coming from, much of it is sourced from the technologies we’re discussing here, and from workers, vehicles, and packages moving around the warehouse.

5. Voice Assistants

What truly elevates the “smart” technology experience is the opportunity to control various devices, processes, and interfaces with the sound of your voice. It’s intuitive, easy and hands-free. Being able to tell Alexa to play music, for example, is incredibly convenient. When applied to the average facility, and coupled with warehouse automation, voice assistant technology can really improve operations and safety, as employees are less distracted.

Order picking can be completed by merely talking into a microphone, which activates a remote bot to grab the items. Turning on and off lights, interacting with equipment, and calling for support are prime examples where voice assistance technology can shine.

When coupled with Augmented Reality, or AR, the same assistants can also present virtual content in the real world to support personnel, which brings us to the next big trend.

6. Augmented Reality (AR) Wearables

Think Google Glass in an industrial setting with instant access to digital information and insights.

“AR is already redefining instruction, training, and coaching. AR addresses those issues by providing real-time, on-site, step-by-step visual guidance on tasks such as product assembly, machine operation, and warehouse picking.”

“Why Every Organization Needs an AR Strategy,” Harvard Business Review

In a warehouse, this means that workers can see measurements, picking stats, receive turn-by-turn navigation support, or get digital help — like items or boxes highlighted for easier identification.

DHL has successfully implemented “smart glasses” within its warehouses in the Netherlands. The process of using them is referred to as “vision picking” and allows package pickers and warehouse workers to function hands-free.

7. Renewable Energy and Sustainability

It’s no secret that warehouses use a lot of energy, especially when they’re equipped with cold storage. Many companies are trying to reduce environmental impact, improve sustainability, and lower costs by installing renewable energy systems. An open and expansive warehouse roof is the perfect place to install solar panels.

Amazon, Walmart, Kohl’s, Whole Foods, Target, and many other big-box retailers have already installed solar panels or wind turbines in brand facilities to offset power consumption. Amazon recently announced plans to add 26 wind and solar farms to its portfolio.

Building the Warehouse Automation of Tomorrow

Automation is the key to improved efficiency, safety, productivity, output, and cost savings. Through technologies like the ones we’ve discussed, it’s possible to streamline and optimize many tasks and processes that might have otherwise experienced bottlenecks. Order-picking, for example, can be significantly enhanced with the help of automated bots, smart RFID tags, and voice-assisted or AR tech. These automated machines and processes can themselves collect and transmit data, trigger other machines and workflows, and enabling more complex but coordinated and efficient workflows that span and transcend the warehouse. For example, when a truck is delayed in traffic, automated dock door scheduling systems can release the appointment and make the door available to other trucks, and book a new door based on the truck’s new ETA.

What’s more, these trends are not pipe dreams or concepts. They’re being used today, in warehouses all over the world. They will grow in sophistication and functionality, too, creating a hyper-efficient warehouse.

Welcome to Industry 4.0.

Emily Newton