The rise in parcel and direct-to-consumer shipping has disrupted warehouse operations, increasing labor costs and value-added services. The continued growth in e-commerce sales, which totaled $517 billion last year (a 15% increase from 2017), coupled with drastic labor shortages, is forcing warehouse operators to seek new solutions to cut costs and meet growing customer demands for rapid shipping and delivery.

Robotics are becoming increasingly popular among warehouses looking to address manual labor limitations, reduce errors, and improve efficiencies. In addition to being cost-effective and quick to implement, these automated solutions offer flexibility and scalability for a variety of warehouse operations.

Used in e-commerce fulfillment, goods-to-person picking robots allow the warehouse associate to remain at a packing station while the goods are brought to them for packing and shipping. These systems also enable warehouses to maximize storage space and increase efficiency.

Collaborative picker aids are an option that travel the warehouse, stopping at a location where an item needs to be picked and moving to a packing area once an order is complete. Robots with green lights alert warehouse employees that an item needs to be manually picked from a storage bin and placed into a robot bin.

Sortation robots are more prevalent within retail, wholesale, and e-commerce fulfillment operations for their ability to increase efficiency and reduce cost. These material handling systems can perform unit and parcel sortation simultaneously or separately, and they are scalable to accommodate growth as needed.

Autonomous piece-picking solutions are another exciting development in this sphere. These systems can increase productivity and efficiency by working collaboratively with warehouse employees and existing or manual automated systems.

Ideal for larger warehouse operations, an automated guided vehicle (AGV) is a portable robot that follows markers or wires on the floor, or uses vision, magnets, or lasers for navigation. AGVs have been used for decades to transport case, pallet, bulk, or specialized containers across a wide range of industries and applications, and are now making their way into more e-commerce fulfillment operations as the need to move larger volumes continues to increase.

As is the case in assessing any operational equipment, it is important to consider the system as a whole. For instance, while all of the solutions mentioned above will increase processing speed and throughput rates for their respective functions, the inputs and outputs of the solution must be considered to fully realize the benefits. As processing speeds in picking or sortation increase with the implementation of these technologies, the rest of the system must respond to handle the improved rates. This could result in additional investment in more traditional material handling technologies such as conveyor in-feed and takeaway or increased staffing around peak operating times. Understanding these impacts is vital for a successful adoption of these advanced technologies, but in many cases the overall increase in fulfillment could more than justify the expenditure.

Lisa Kennedy is Project Manager, Tompkins International. She is a business strategy consultant with 20 years of experience in growth and strategic planning across industries. Samuel Nichols is Consultant, Tompkins International. He is an experienced project consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the logistics and supply chain industry and boasts a strong background in the field of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

This article originally appeared in the 2019 May/June issue of PARCEL.