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Warehouse automation & the future – Reliability realised

Article by Megan Gee


Warehouse automation is a field of both immense possibility and deep concern. Commercial robotics specifically, and warehouse automation in general, are areas that often emerge in public discourse with strong degrees of scepticism, concern, and even outright hostility.

Naturally, this presents a fascinating line of enquiry. Why do people regard the progress of industry 4.0 and the advancement of warehouse automation with such hostility? Is it just concerns about the loss of jobs or the advanced training required? If both these can be explained and dealt with, what else might the public and warehouse workers specifically, possibly be worried about?

This was the question asked by a group of researchers from the Harvard Business Review in February 2022. Researchers Rushda Afzal, Dave Light, Joe Lui, Raghav Narsalay, and Ida Nair Sharma, visited six countries and spoke to over sixty picking staff and frontline supervisory officers. By hearing directly the expectations and worries people have about the changes coming to this industry, we are now better able to answer the question “should we be afraid of warehouse automation?”

Warehouse automation – a breakout of breakdowns?

After fears over unemployment and lack of training, the HBR’s researchers found the third biggest concern about warehouse automation was the possibility of system-wide breakdowns. The perception was that the systems that made warehouse automation possible were very elaborate, complicated, and interconnected. This meant that if anything went wrong, the entire warehouse would grind to a halt.

In the HBR’s research, they found that this experience had been learned the hard way. One Spanish supervisor working for a global automotive manufacturer said the following “while working with the automated robots, we face challenges when a part is jammed or when they can’t move. We learn about many codes only as the error happen”.

The feeling is that too often the warehouse automation process often amplifies the problems of breakdowns rather than minimises them. One British materials handling operative working in the construction sector said that when there were problems “it generally ends up being a big breakdown” and the entire workday is often disrupted.

Reliability realised

What these staff members are describing has long been a problem for older models of warehouse automation. These kinds of systems are often referred to as “fixed automation” or “fixed robotics” because of their reliance on static systems of built-in-place infrastructure. However, modern forms of warehouse automation are embracing something much more robust and far less prone to systemic issues.

With fixed automation, the kind of cascading failures described above are a natural element of the design. Fixed robotics relies on AGVs (automatic guided vehicles) that move along rails or tracks. If a robot on one of these systems breaks down, it’s natural that a cascading failure will follow. An entire track could be backed up full of vehicles, which could in turn spread and cause many wider problems.

The alternative model of warehouse automation is a very different system. Flexible robotics refers to the industry 4.0 model of warehouse automation where the intrusion of infrastructure is at an absolute minimum. Instead of elaborate rails and tracks, DM codes affixed to the flooring tell the robots where they are, and advanced computer systems direct them where they need to go wirelessly. The robots can also scan the room for obstacles to easily find the quickest and most efficient route to move the freestanding storage racks wherever they are needed.

This model makes cascade failures near impossible. Leaving aside the inherent reliability of the individual robots, without the static infrastructure that amplifies problems found in fixed robotics, any breakdowns that happen can be easily circumvented. A robot that stops working becomes an obstacle to work around, rather than a logjam that locks the entire system into an inactive state.

Flexible automation also allows for easy redundancy. This kind of warehouse automation is modular, allowing for a broken robot to be replaced with a working one with minimum possible disruption. When it come to modern warehouse automation, flexibility is most definitely the future.

See flexible warehouse automation in action

To discover exactly why flexible warehouse automation surpasses the problems discovered by the HBR, why not come and see it for yourself. Wise Robotics is proud to own and operate Europe’s first flexible robotics demonstration centre. You can watch the technology working in real-time first hand, see the efficiencies and advantages of flexible operations for yourself, and learn why warehouse automation is experiencing dramatic changes. After all, the robotics revolution isn’t coming. It’s already here.

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