Robotics is playing a key part in retail’s continuing transformation into an “omni-channel environment” for order fulfillment, presenters said at Automate 2015 in Chicago.
Retailers are embracing multichannel strategies to answer consumer demand for choice in purchasing online, over the phone, or in person while receiving the delivery of their choice, expedited for a higher fee.
Many retailers found out they couldn’t meet the delivery promises during the 2013 holiday shopping season, said Earl Wohlrab, robotic systems manager at Intelligrated, a Mason, Ohio-based automated material handling solutions provider.
Since then, many retailers have shifted from shipping items solely from warehouse locations to shipping from physical stores or satellite warehouses to meet consumer demand for faster delivery. So if the physical store is closer or has inventory not at the warehouse, the delivery will originate there.
In other instances, retailers offer consumers the option of ordering online or on the phone and picking up at a physical store for a lower delivery charge than shipping straight to the customer’s home.
Internet-based and mobile commerce are expected to continue to grow in the next few years, which will only intensify the move to multichannel order fulfillment and delivery, Wohlrab added.
“Many of the applications that we are working on today are not new ideas but are just now possible based on advances in technology,” Wohlrab said, citing improved robot speeds and configurations, the addition of vision systems, improved sensor technology, enhanced mobility, and advance control software.
Falling camera costs have enabled companies such as Intelligrated to add vision systems to operate more efficient distribution and fulfillment handling, according to Wohlrab. Laser ranging and infrared sensor bars have further added to the efficiency.
“There are four basic technologies at the core of all DC [distribution center] applications: palletizing, depalletizing, bin picking and mobile platforms,” Wohlrab said.
Humans simply can’t move at the speed necessary to meet omni-channel shipping requirements. So robots are essential in the loading and unloading of pallets with single and multiple SKUs, picking both uniform and disparate items in the warehouse, and for some truck loading and unloading.
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However, Wohlrab cautioned the use of robots for loading and unloading trucks is still at an early stage because many trucks go out with various assortments of package sizes, weights, etc. Other warehouse uses of robotics are still in development as well, he added.
Robots aid baker’s shipping overhaul
For some companies, the need for better fulfillment of customer orders means new configurations for conveyor systems. Schneider Packaging Equipment, for example, helped a baker consolidate 12 production lines into one central palletizing location, said Kevin Keefe, Schneider packaging’s marketing manager. Though he could discuss how the baker’s operation had changed, he declined to divulge the name of the baker.
Using a bar-code reader, a worker scans the products to be shipped, which are loaded on the single conveyor. Using its own scanner, the FANUC robot identifies the item and then moves it from the belt to the appropriate pallet for shipping.
By relying on the bar code scanners, new products can be introduced at any time without any reconfiguration or disruption of the system, which had been a problem in the past, according to Keefe.
Although the revamped conveyor line has only been in operation a couple of months, the company is already seeing benefits, Keefe said. The year-to-date workforce efficiency improvement of 9% exceeds the customer’s goal of 3.5%, while the new line is easily meeting production goals.