Definition of a warehouse shuttle system 

What is a warehouse shuttle system?

Warehouse Automation Updated April 27th, 2023

Warehouse shuttle systems are a warehouse automation solution typically used in conjunction with pallet racking to automate the transport of pallets from one end of a rack to the other. In this post, we’ll discuss warehouse shuttle systems, its definition, how they work, their benefits, disadvantages and alternatives.

Definition of a warehouse shuttle system Definition of a warehouse shuttle system 

A warehouse shuttle system is a mobile cart that “shuttles” (i.e., transports) items in automated pallet racking. It’s used to store and retrieve stock totes, trays or cases in storage buffer. These shuttle systems are invaluable in warehouses that use goods-to-picker methodology and have high-density racking. They travel the depth of your racking to pick up or deposit pallets at either end of the racking structure.

They are ideal for warehouses with lower SKU counts and high throughput — which means frequent loading and unloading of a large number of pallets per storage unit. They speed up the circulation of outgoing (orders) and incoming (replenishment) goods and make it easier to manage racks with deep storage buffers.

This enables warehouse managers to increase their racking depth, increase the height of racking structures and eliminate aisles, thus maximizing every square inch of warehouse storage space.

How warehouse shuttle systems work

Warehouse shuttle systems use either one of two possible configurations: FIFO (first in first out) or LIFO (last in first out). This depends on whether the rack faces are accessible on only one end or both.

They are operated via remote-control, radio signal or Wi-Fi. Loaded pallets are placed at one end of the rack. A human operator transmits the order via the proper signal to the shuttle. The shuttle picks the loaded pallet and delivers it to the first free space in the lane.

Shuttle vehicles run on rails that are integrated into the racking structure. They can change levels (i.e., ascend and descend) by means of vertical transporters or warehouse lifts typically positioned at the front end of the aisle. This enables them to store and retrieve pallets on several different levels.

Uses of warehouse shuttle systems

Since warehouse shuttle systems facilitate the automatic placement and retrieval of pallets from deep storage racks, they can be used to increase efficiency in dense storage areas. Small warehouses that lack the space to deploy forklift trucks can use these systems for order fulfillment and replenishment operations. Such warehouses can also maximize their limited storage space by increasing the height and depth of racking structures.

For maximum ROI, shuttle systems should only be used in warehouses that store huge quantities of the same type of SKU such as food and beverage production/distribution facilities, meat processing, cold storage, etc. They’re not ideal for distribution facilities where there are multiple SKUs per lane and multiple items stored per pallets.

Essentially, they reduce the resources and manpower needed to move high volumes of similar products/pallets per lane. They also enhance operational safety, reduce travel time and labor costs and improve productivity.

Benefits of warehouse shuttle systems

A warehouse shuttle system is an autonomous vehicle used in place of traditional forklift trucks to handle pallets in rack areas. They minimize the need for forklifts to enter lanes, reducing congestion and enabling warehouses to maximize every square inch of floor space.

Aisles can be built closer together and racks can be expanded horizontally and vertically to accommodate more pallets/SKUs. For the right product and setting, these systems can be of immense value in enhancing productivity. They improve pallet handling, thus minimizing the risk of damage to SKUs and racks.

Disadvantages of warehouse shuttle systems

Although warehouse shuttle systems can be valuable in certain environments, they come with a lot of disadvantages. This includes:

  • They have high maintenance requirements, and breakdowns can lead to downtime.
  • They require significant upfront investment cost and specialized personnel for operation and maintenance.
  • They’re not well-suited for piece picking operations and facilities with a large number of unique SKUs.

Collaborative mobile robots: A better alternative

Collaborative mobile robots: A better alternative

Due to the rise of e-commerce, most modern warehouses handle many unique SKUs. Warehouse shuttle systems aren’t well-suited for such environments. For piece picking operations, collaborative mobile robots are a better alternative for the following reasons:

  • Lower upfront capital cost and flexible investment overall
  • No infrastructure changes needed — integrates with your existing infrastructure
  • Improves accuracy and productivity

Cobots like Chuck navigate to inventory locations and display the items and quantities to pick to guide associates through each picking task. They leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize pick routes in real-time.

Whether you’re looking for warehouse automation solutions to solve the labor shortage problem or improve productivity/efficiency, collaborative mobile robots are the way to go. Compared to warehouse shuttle systems, cobots can deliver higher levels of productivity for e-commerce warehouses and multi-channel dealers that experience highly fluctuating order situations.

Download our white paper, 7 Reasons Why Warehouse Robots Beat Traditional Automation, to learn more about the benefits of deploying collaborative mobile robots in your warehouse. We can also discuss the solution that’s right for you. Contact us today.