Robotics re-shaping warehouses

Frank-Peter Kirgis explains how robots are keeping companies competitive.

Frank-Peter Kirgis explains how robots are keeping companies competitive.

IN RECENT times there has been an increase in the use of robotic systems used in warehouses, logistics and distribution centres.

Historically, robot applications have been limited to the automotive and electronic sectors. However over the past decade, growth in material handling orders indicates that the robotics industry is exploring new avenues, particularly in consumer goods, such as food, beverage and pharmaceuticals.

Robotic-based material handling in distribution systems is among the fastest growing applications in flexible automation, alongside packaging.

This is due to manufacturers and distributors responding to the demands of their retail customers — particularly large, influential ones – who require that products come to their facilities palletised in a structure that suits them.

The configuration of each pallet is customised to meet their specific needs, a task that has been difficult to execute in the past.

Mixed load pallets are emerging as one of the most efficient technologies currently available for the supply chain process. Robots are the only viable and flexible option for creating mixed load pallets.

The diversity of products handled by distribution centres and warehouses is expanding at an enormous rate. At the same time, these facilities are under immense pressure to reduce costs.

Accommodating the broadest range of products, keeping capital expenditures low, and meeting quick return on investments are tough challenges faced by material handling facilities.

Although packing and palletising involves a unique set of requirements for each and every order, managers responsible for warehousing operations are recognising that an automated solution with rapid changeover capabilities can accommodate a wide diversity of operations and material while maintaining productivity.

Justifying robotics

As with any other machinery application, the end users need to be able to justify the capital investment.

The most obvious benefits associated with the installation of robots are those of displacing tasks that are monotonous or present strain risks to human labour.

In this kind of application robotics can reduce sickness, overcome potential and existing labour shortages, and improve both package quality and working conditions.

Less obvious are savings linked to a reduced head count such as a reduction in cafeteria facilities, staff recruitment and training costs, tax and health contributions and even the number of parking spaces required. In many cases a work area reduction alone offers cost savings in real estate.

These savings, coupled with falling robot prices, increased speeds and improved accuracies, are leading companies to install robots.

Getting to grips with robots

Placing boxes, trays, bags, bottles or other items on a pallet seems a straightforward task, but when considering the demands of mixed-load palletising, multiple feeder lines and pattern changes, nothing compares to robot-based automation.

Axium Industrial Automation specialises in complex robotic palletising/depalletising solutions for warehouses. Marc Ducharme of Axium said, “We have developed a unique solution for mixed-load palletising that has received very positive responses when demonstrated to distribution centres. I believe that there is a very strong market for robotics in the future, although it is still in the early stages”.

Axium has exclusivity with MagicLogic Optimization who developed Cube-IQ a load planning programme that can provide the best possible loads for pallets. It has a complete graphical user interface, with point-and-click and drag-and-drop to build up loading pallets, and with on screen and printed graphics.

“The concept of Cube-IQ is very simple, but the software is very powerful. It uses the same concept as configuring truck/lorry combinations, but just builds pallets. We have demonstrated this with potential customers using their real-life scenarios, and results has shown that the costs savings can be substantial, especially when order errors, inaccurate shipment, improper stock rotation and double deliveries are eliminated”, Ducharme said.

The fast handling speeds are due, in part, to the fact that today’s generation of robots have high speed, low inertia motors and fast processors within the controllers. PC-based controller solutions, with their open architecture, have really made their mark.

Some applications use machine vision systems and image processing and, for more reliable operation, this can be directly integrated into the software and motion controller of the robot. This comprehensive integration of all components into one platform facilitates efficient communication and guarantees reliable robot operation.

Users are now able to control robots via user-friendly programming interfaces. These have been simplified so that engineers familiar with programmable logic controls are also able to program robots. The user interface for every robot is an intuitive screen. The user can easily implement parameter changes during operation, which significantly increases the quality and efficiency of the system. Simple machine programming can also be used for new product shapes and sizes as well as the possibility of viewing production statistics.

In conclusion

The best way to deliver robotic automation within materials handling applications is to establish formal alliances with system designers, builders and integrators.

This enables information, technology and experience to be shared in a mutually secure manner to the benefit of the end user. ABB Robotics Partner Network allows customised solutions to be developed to maximise economic benefits and ensure efficient robotic configuration for warehouses, logistics and distribution centres.

Materials handling facilities need to reassess their strategy to identify key opportunities to gain the advantage of integrating robotics into the operation.

As the tangible benefits derived from employing robotic solution are revealed, it is widely expected that robotics will be adopted at a much higher rate in industries outside its strong concentration in the automotive sector. As robotics makes a stronger appeal to a broad range of industries, the overall life cycle costs will follow a faster decent as initial purchase, integration and maintenance become standardised.

ABB Robotics email robots@au.abb.com.