6 ways collaborative robots are transforming warehousing

John Gomez Last Updated: October 11th, 2019

The future of warehousing is in automation. One major trend in warehousing is the growing adoption of robots that work alongside human personnel — also known as collaborative robots or cobots.

Already, the global robotics market is expected to reach $13 billion by 2025. Right now, cobots make up roughly 3% of those sales, but it’s supposed to soar to 34% within the same time frame.

What is the reason for this major shift in the global robotics industry? Should you follow suit? Continue reading to learn more about how collaborative robots are transforming warehousing.

1. Easy to integrate

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Collaborative robots are lightweight and moveable, and there’s no need to undergo significant construction to implement cobots. They’re easy to integrate into your existing infrastructure — no permanent or costly infrastructure changes necessary.

Collaborative robots also don’t require significant space, so they don’t require extra-wide aisles to navigate the warehouse. They can move easily throughout warehouse aisles alongside your associates and can be used on all types of warehouse floors, including rack-supported mezzanine.

2. Creating lower & flexible capital costs

One of the biggest benefits of collaborative robots is their flexibility. For example, some collaborative robot solutions allow warehouse operators to rent, buy or do both. Some businesses choose to buy enough collaborative robots to meet their needs during periods of normal demand and rent additional robots when demand increases. That means warehouses can avoid making significant capital investments in automation solutions that will only be used during peak demand periods. Instead, warehouse operators can limit capital investments to what’s needed to accommodate typical demand.

The flexibility to rent additional capacity during peak and return units when demand returns to normal helps to ensure your fulfillment process continues to meet current and future demand. Thanks to their mobility, collaborative robots can easily be transferred to other facilities, which allows for more efficient resource utilization for multi-site warehouse operations. It also makes your warehouse more agile, reduces cost-to-serve and helps to maintain SLA compliance.

3. Increasing accuracy & reducing human error

Human error can be costly for a warehouse. Sending the wrong order can hurt customer relationships and increase return rates and refund requests. All of this can ultimately hurt your bottom line.

Designed to leverage AI and machine learning, collaborative robots can make rapid decisions and help associates more efficiently manage multiple tasks during a single trip to the warehouse floor. And because collaborative robots are guiding your associates through tasks, they also minimize the likelihood of human error.

4. Boosting productivity levels

6 ways collaborative robots are transforming warehousing

Warehouses are large, which means associates walk long distances to find SKUs and transport orders to packing and shipping areas. The average warehouse wastes an estimated 6.9 weeks each year on unnecessary walking and other motion, which amounts to about 265 million hours of labor at a cost of $4.3 billion. Not only is excess walking costly, but it can also slow down your warehouse associates’ productivity throughout their shifts.

“The average warehouse wastes an estimated 6.9 weeks each year on unnecessary walking and other motion, which amounts to about 265 million hours of labor at a cost of $4.3 billion.”

Collaborative robots help to speed things along by tapping into AI and machine learning to optimize picking routes in real-time, reducing unnecessary walking. By aiding with order picking by guiding associates through each task, collaborative robots also make order fulfillment more efficient. Collaborative robots also remove the long walks between stages of the picking process, further reducing unnecessary travel through the warehouse for associates.

Since more is getting done in less time, it reduces physical fatigue for your associates, which can keep them working optimally. In turn, warehouses can witness a 2x to 3x increase in productivity.

5. Enhancing human labor

There’s a fear that autonomous mobile robots will take the jobs of warehouse associates. However, there’s no need to eliminate man-hours. Instead, collaborative robots work alongside human workers. By making their work more efficient and minimizing unnecessary walking, which reduces fatigue, collaborative robots can help to boost employee satisfaction. With less to worry about, associates can focus on optimizing their work habits, so they become more efficient.

For example, let’s look at the typical work day of a warehouse associate. Associates have to walk through a large warehouse, picking up orders one SKU at a time. Workers place items in containers and transport them to the appropriate area, such as picking and packing areas, either manually or by pushing filled containers along on a cart. As associates fill orders, containers and carts get heavier, making them more difficult to carry or push and contributing to strain and fatigue.

Collaborative robots ease this load by guiding associates through monotonous order picking tasks and transporting orders to the right areas after picking is complete. Some cobots set the walking pace for workers. In doing so, collaborative robots free up associates to focus on more complex tasks while making order picking more desirable to employees.

6. Enhancing warehouse associate safety

A lot can go wrong for associates in a warehouse. Boxes can fall, and associates can end up with muscle strain, back injuries or a host of other work-related injuries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 5.1 recordable injuries for every 100 full-time warehouse workers in 2017, with 3.7 cases out of every 100 workers involving days away from work, job restriction or transfer. There were 22 fatalities in the same year, an increase from 16 fatalities in 2016 and 11 fatalities in 2015.  As a warehouse operator or manager, it’s critical to find ways to improve the safety of your workforce.

This is especially true with the negative impact on-the-job injuries can have on your company. For one, it can cost you in workers’ compensation fees. And two, it can reduce productivity levels due to missed work or unfilled positions.

6 ways collaborative robots are transforming warehousing

Screenshot via Bureau of Labor Statistics

While some automation solutions can pose safety risks for operators or associates, collaborative robots aren’t a hazard in the workplace. In fact, they’re designed with multiple motion and force sensors that help them detect objects and people to avoid collisions. Some collaborative robots will even halt when it senses a person coming into contact in a way that’s outside its intended design. Since they optimize picking routes and automate long walks, aisles are less congested and your associates are doing less walking throughout the warehouse overall, which reduces the likelihood of accidents.

By adding collaborative robots to the warehouse, you’re automating the picking process so your workers can maintain high performance without sacrificing safety.

Advance your warehouse fulfillment process with collaborative robots

There are many ways collaborative robots can improve your warehouse functions. Collaborative robots can boost safety for your workers, increase productivity and ultimately help you save money and boost profits.

With the assistance of collaborative robots, you can take your warehouse to the next level in competition and customer relationship management. The future is here — how will you use robotics to maximize your order fulfillment?