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15 reasons why robots beat conveyors

Article by Megan Gee
wise robots and hikrobot in warehouse

When revolutions happen it’s because what they offer is so far beyond the alternative, everything else becomes redundant. Such is the case with the robotics revolution.

When compared with the fixed option, flexible automation offers so much more that it simply cannot be ignored.

Fixed vs Flex – Conveyors vs Robots

Fixed automation describes a situation where any automated motion requires a fixed infrastructure to guide them. This could be rails, gantries or conveyor belts, among others. Sometimes there will be automated arms to grab or computer-controlled cranes to lift, but the result is always the same. The automated aspects of the system can only move where there is a fixed infrastructure. Any movement is limited to where the rollers and rails of immobile infrastructure allow.

Flexible automation is entirely different. This system employs robots which are free from the constraints of rails, gantries or other built-in-place guidelines. They are self-contained, controlling and directing their own movement. The storage units are free-standing and rearrangeable. There is virtually no infrastructure, beyond a few data matrix (DM) panels placed into the floor for orientation. The warehouse is not built around the robots; the robots work to the specifications of the warehouse.

This description only captures the smallest fragment of why this is such a revolutionary improvement. To explain things further, here are 15 reasons why computer-controlled robots always beat conveyor belt rollers:

1. Quicker installation

Installing gantries, rails and robotic arms into a warehouse is a drawn-out and difficult process. Fixed automation can take months, or even years to fully come online.

Flexible automation robots come pre-loaded with their software. All it takes is placing the DM panels in the right place, and your warehouse is ready to work.

2. Less up-front cost

Fixed automation is dramatically more expensive upfront. Not only do you have the cost of the robots themselves, but you have the warehouse downtime from the installation, and the cost of the infrastructure they need to function.

Flexible automation has negligible start-up downtime, and virtually no infrastructure installation cost. The up-front investment is dramatically smaller.

3. Faster ROI

With all the cost and time of setting up everything to get fixed automation to work, it could take years or even decades before you see healthy ROI from that kind of arrangement.

Flexible automation allows for rapid ROI. With their lower up-front costs and the faster set up time, your business will be able to track and measure the full benefits of the robotics revolution in no time.

4. Keep workers contaminant-free

Cleaning and decontaminating a fixed automation system is a labour intensive and time-consuming task. Robots and infrastructure alike will need looking into, and since the one cannot separate from the other, your automation system could move contaminants among your manual workers very easily.

Because flexible automation is made up of discreet and self-contained units, decontamination is much more straightforward. Avoiding the spread of COVID-19 or other agents is much simpler in a flexible automation environment.

5. Adapts to your warehouse shape

When installing fixed automation, you are designing the warehouse to accommodate the infrastructure. You need to make space for gantries and rails, as well as the conveyors.

With flexible automation, the robots adapt to your needs, not the other way round. Whatever size or shape your warehouse, simply place the DM codes exactly where you need them, and let the robots do the rest.

6. Change the routes as you need

Fixed automation means just that – the paths, routes, and order of things are always fixed. Changes, shifts or new ideas aren’t always possible to implement. Not unless you’re willing to disassemble a gantry!

Flexible automation can alter its paths and routes in whatever manner you need. Since the DM codes are just there for orientation, the path a robot takes through your warehouse can be tweaked and adjusted to whatever you need.

7. Simple to speed up

Acceleration is a concept entirely foreign to fixed automation. Once installed and operational, it has one top speed, and that’s it. You cannot go any faster.

Flexible automation allows for changes and shifts in speed. More robots can be deployed, picking stations set up and racks installed. If your business needs it, flexible automation offers it.

8. More expansion opportunities

A warehouse fitted with fixed automation is almost impossible to expand. You might as well build another warehouse. Even if you have space, the downtime involved in installing new tracks, conveyors, cranes, and robotic arms, would be beyond prohibitive.

Flexible automation allows for any expansion your business needs. If you have space, lay down new DM panels, update the RCS, and you are good to go. Your warehouse can expand and your business can grow.

9. Safer for staff

Fixed automation cannot avoid staff or redirect its path away from them. If a staff member is caught in the way, safety is far from guaranteed.

With flexible automation, staff are much better protected. Sophisticated sensor arrays ranging from LIDAR to infra-red and ultrasonic mean the robots can see your staff and avoid them as and when necessary. When robots work alongside staff, flexible automation actively works to keep everyone safe.

If your business so desires, however, you can take safety one step further. Flexible automation offers the option of a robot only grid; a space that is 100% product storage, and 100% product movement. Fenced off and safe, the robots bring the product where it is needed, keeping your staff safe, and your operations efficient.

10. More efficient storage

Warehouses fitted with fixed automation need a lot of space set aside for their robots. Gantries take up space. Cranes consume room. Automated arms are big and bulky, to put it mildly. All this infrastructure is consuming valuable volume that could be used for storing products.

Flexible infrastructure is much sleeker. DM codes on the floor take up no space at all, allowing all the room set aside for infrastructure to instead get spent on the reason your warehouse is there; storage of what you want to sell.

11. Self-optimising

There is no optimising with a fixed automation system. There is only one way of performing the same and singular function. Any optimising that does happen will be rearranging what is stored where, which will need to be done either manually, or as part of downtime.

Flexible automation is self-optimising. SLAM navigation allows the RCS to determine the most efficient route possible for every robot at all times. Manual intervention is not required.

12. Much more mobile

Once you build a fixed automation system, that system is a part of that warehouse. To move to a larger warehouse would be to build new infrastructure. Fixed automation is fundamentally immobile.

Flexible automation comes pre-packaged into discreet and mobile units. A robot is entirely self-contained with all it’s essential systems and equipment pre-packaged. If for any reason you need to change location, flexible automation can move right along with you.

13. Adaptable storage

With fixed automation, the storage solution is pre-built and fixed. It cannot be adapted or altered without a significant reworking of the entire warehouse.

With flexible automation, we supply entirely modular racks. The robots can carry any size or shape of free-standing rack your business needs. Whether it holds clothing or car parts, the rack can be adjusted to perform perfectly in whatever particular role you need most.

Furthermore, the free-standing racks mean that should a product prove more popular, the warehouse can be rearranged. Different items can be stored nearer picking stations during different seasons. As fashions and trends change, your warehouse storage is easily adaptable.

14. Much more manageable maintenance

Maintenance and upkeep on fixed automation always mean some level of downtime. Infrastructure affects the entire system, meaning the whole warehouse will need to stop while a single rail or conveyor is fixed.

Flexible automation is modular and decentralised. A single robot can be repaired and upgraded while the rest continue working. Knock-on effects are minimal, and the RCS can re-optimise for fewer robots with simple mathematical ease.

15. Fully futureproof

Whatever new technologies emerge, a fixed automation system cannot embrace them. It is built to fit one mould, one path of rails and one arrangement of gantries. If new systems emerge, you won’t be able to adjust your fixed automation arrangement to take advantage.

Flexible automation allows for upgrades to the robots, and for any changes to your warehouse or storage systems that you could need. Whatever the future holds, the robotics revolution will be able to carry you there.

To discover the power and potential of flexible automation, come and see it for yourself. Take a tour of Europe’s first flexible automation warehouse demonstration centre, in the city of Lincoln, UK. Find out just how much further your business could go, with the backing of the robotics revolution.

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